On First Listen: Battles – Gloss Drop

During the summer of 2004, I took a girl I really liked to a Prefuse 73 concert at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. I didn’t know anything about the opening bands and frankly didn’t care that much about seeing Prefuse because, well, I was on a date with her. When we arrived, the Blind Pig was dingy and smokey–Michigan was one of the last states to outlaw smoking indoors and this venue was particularly congested–so we sat near the front window, on the other side of the venue from the stage.

A group that I had never heard of took the stage and started playing as I tended to my date who was having trouble breathing through the smoke. We went to the basement of the Blind Pig for shelter but there was little to be found. She was becoming visibly sick and wasn’t sure if she’d be able to make it given the No Re-entrance policy. We sat through the entire set of what I called “electronic music played on instruments” before she threw in the towel and we had to leave. I never saw Prefuse 73 that night but saw plenty of shirts that said “I have BTTLS in my life”. After dropping her off, I went home and Googled the phrase.

A few weeks later, the band’s only releases–B EP, EP C, and Tras–quickly became my favorite records. At the time, they were a band I could reference that not even a lot of my musically-inclined friends knew much about. They felt like a “find”, the likes of which I never come across. And when their debut LP Mirrored dropped to critical acclaim, I felt further vindicated.

The group’s latest release, Gloss Drop, however, is something of a disappointment. Battles thrives when they’re obliterating conventional instrument roles, when guitars sound like keyboards or martians and the group is on some Let Our Powers Combine Captain Planet shit. The dizzying pace of Mirrored‘s tracks kept this dynamic alive, but Gloss Drop mostly dismisses this trend in favor of individual identities: that‘s the guitar, that‘s the melody.

Rarely is that clearer than with the inclusion of vocal guest spots from the likes of Matias Aguayo (“Ice Cream”), Gary Numan (“My Machines”), and Kazu Makino (“Sweetie & Shag”). I mean, these are songs, not sonic cacophonies. All of the things that make Battles so captivating (alienness, obfuscation, slight of hand) are shed in favor of song structure and clearly defined roles. And when they do favor their old ways, tracks like “Inchworm” come out, which sound like they’re missing guest spots from the Animal Collective collective.

The real problem may be a lack of syncopation. Relisten to “Atlas” whose drum beat is almost dizzying or “Leyendecker” whose percussion only snaps on 2 and 4 because it’s hitting every other beat. There was a sense of controlled congestion to Battles that’s missing on Gloss Drop, a record that’s defined by its structure. The problem with the record is not that there’s singing, it’s that there’s room to sing. There are openings and gaps where you’re confronted with vacant space that could be better served being punctured by another Is That A Guitar Or Keyboard melody.

And while it must be difficult to keep up that level of next-level composition for long, this sudden a fall off is still disappointing. No longer are these guys doing “electronic music played on instruments”. They’re just playing instruments, like everyone else.

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