Earlier this year, NBC’s widely popular sitcom satire of the mundane, The Office, said goodbye to Steve Carrell, who played Michael Scott, the Regional Manager at Dunder Mifflan Paper Company and focal point of the show. After six seasons, Carrell moved on, leaving a breakroom full of very funny and talented actors. Sure, Michael is gone, but we still have Jim and Dwight and Gabe and Andy and Pam and Phyllis and Darrel and Ryan and Kelley and Meredith and Erin and Toby and Angela and Oscar. There’s still great side plots and character foils and absurdity and romance and skylarking and tomfoolery aplenty. And Michael was annoying! He was an idiot! He was always doing frustrating things! So why do we miss him so much?
This brings us to Battles. Their 2007 LP Mirrored, along with its preceding EPs, was a cyber-rock monster. The four piece made ferociously technical behemoths, the sheer complexity and force of which made the band sound like math-rock cyborgs. A mind-blowing album, Mirrored was a perfect fusion of four extremely skilled sound engineers: brutal drummer John Stanier, former Don Caballero player Ian Williams, guitarist Dave Konopka and wild-eyed experimental frontman Tyondai Braxton. Their performances were monstrous, the stage crowded with seemingly miles of twisted cables, towers of amplifiers, Stanier’s signature extra-high crash cymbals and various music engineering equipment.
Last year, the band announced that Braxton would be leaving the band to pursue his own experimental career, which I can only assume involves him sitting on a picnic blanket, mindlessly stomping on a jungle of absurd pedals and whining about how he’s just waaaay too deep for Battles. This came as bittersweet news to many fans. Personally, I thought that Braxton’s annoying pitched-up vocals hindered the band’s intensity, and was sort of looking forward to hearing more tracks like “SZ2”—sort of like I wasn’t dreading the absence of Michael Scott’s buffoonery.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Braxton did a lot more the band than input his robo-chipmunk snarling. Gloss Drop’s main flaw is in the structure. The complex shifts in dynamics that characterized masterpieces like “Atlas” or “Tonto” are really inhibited on the new album by a lack of players. Because Braxton’s many layers of guitar, keys and extra looping are gone, Konopka and Williams (especially the latter, who now spends stage time cramped between four different keyboards, loop pedals and a laptop) have to pick up the slack. Gloss Drop is too confined to the limitations of static loops, so the band has less room to roam. This makes songs like “Futura,” “Wall Street,” “Inchworm” and “Dominican Fade” all give off the same impression: an intriguing figure pops up in the beginning, slowly joined by other fascinating layers, but after two or three minutes, the song begins to meander and grow stale.
Although many of the tracks here falter in structure, the production overall is quite good. Gloss Drop has a much sunnier feel than its predecessor, abounding with sharp tropical keys that sound a quite a bit like a gleaming xylophone, (and also kind of like the Rugrats theme music.) The myriad of sonic layers fit together very well in the mix, not sounding cluttered or jumbled. The musicians still employ a lot of the mysterious noises that made Mirrored such a thrill, especially on the F*** Buttons-esque destroyer “Rolls Bayce.”
Excluding the repetitive lull in the middle of the album, Gloss Drop has some pretty great songs. As far as instrumentals go, opener “Africastle” is a hulking shape shifter with a few very surprising sonic twists and “White Electric” gets very intense after a little-too-long buildup. The band brings in a few surprising guests vocalists into the blend with generally positive results, much like how The Office experimented with Will Ferrell and Creed Batton: Matias Aguayo leads “Ice Cream,” which the most fun summer jam Battles will probably ever make, but Gary Newman gives a pretty underwhelming performance on the sweaty “My Machines.”
The best song on the album is the puzzling closer “Sundome.” Oddly enough, it begins with very foreboding guitar wails that sound like whales moaning, but eventually transforms into a sort of charismatic alien dancehall track, fused with sultry string and horn blasts. Japanese noise-rock crew Boredoms lends Battles their oddball singer Yamantaka Eye, who really catapults this track over the top. He sounds like a mix between the monsters in the live action Scooby Doo movie from 2002 and a reggae hype-man. But in a weirdly attractive way. I promise.
Gloss Drop although definitely flawed, deserves a listen or two this summer. If not for anything else, check it out to see just how great John Stanier is at playing drums. Seriously. The guy is a machine.
Album Rating: 6.5/10
Listen to “Africastle” right here.