Review Summary: What Gloss Drop shows is that battles can be won in many ways, but strength in numbers will always be your greatest asset
If Battles’ debut release Mirrored
proved anything, it was that technical prowess and a keen sense of commercial appeal were two ideals that could, in fact, sit side by side quite amicably. The revelation that hidden away in amongst all the eccentricities and the frivolities was this magnetizing and prosperous pop compulsion was only lessened by the immediacy with which this appealing and decidedly fun affair revealed itself. The surprises lurking around every twisted and skewed corner only heightened the experience; expertly crafted shifts from more experimental convalescence into full-on scenes of slightly off-kilter rock that bordered on normalcy were, oddly, as commonplace as they were surprising. It didn’t matter whether they were plumbing the depths for indie-pop gold or locking themselves into the “math rock” tag that’s befallen them, there was a clear-cut sense of mirth; an unbridled and frenetic energy and happiness imbedded in their soundtrack that played out like a demented morning accompaniment to a matinee of lunatic animations.
Now, while it’s easy to point fingers and make bold statements as to why these features fail to be as fruitful as they once were (and the process is ultimately made easier by the recent excursion of Tyondai Braxton), the idea that Braxton’s contributions were intrinsic to the rampant nature of Battles' more inspired moments is one that just won’t disappear. In a very real sense, Battles now appear leaderless, amicably divorced yet persevering. And that perseverance, as forebode in recent press releases, was a push towards a deeper cohesiveness. Which is a completely true vindication of everything Gloss Drop
is, but in that search for a more subtle progression the now-trio have lost that spark, that invigorating sense of joy that clearly displayed itself with the likes of ‘Tonto’ or ‘Leyendecker’. And it would seem that that spark lay in Braxton, as the glorious motifs and spastic arrangements of Mirrored
all too gloriously reappeared in Tyondai’s solo run, Central Market
Now less decadent and more deliberate, Gloss Drop
finds Battles swimming in a sea of structure and secure foundations. The group attempt to placate themselves with the idea of repetition and stability; the catch is they still pull it off remarkably well, but the reality is that none of it reveals anything new or surprising. We’ve heard all this before; which doesn’t stop the album from being one of the most baroque yet quintessentially enjoyable albums of the year, but it does fall a few steps shy of the marker the group made for themselves four years prior. Battles’ instrumental work is still as off the wall as before, but there’s still that indefinable trait absent in the makeup. It doesn’t come off as predictable as much as it does seem pre-planned; Mirrored
was the master class in free jams that just happened to be conducted while someone was smart enough to hold down the record button, Gloss Drop
is more calculated yet rigid. There’s less room for movement, only small sections reserved for growth and separation.
To keep themselves from being backed too far into a corner, Battles call in a few favors in an attempt to round out the absence. And truthfully, the guest vocals do provide some welcome reprieves. Without Tyondai’s distorted vocals scissor-cutting their way in over the cacophony the music takes on a rather static complacency. Everything is lined up in perfect formation and detonated in much the same way, the problem is we see it coming. The guest vocals provide a much needed sense of unpredictability; not just in how well they’ll accentuate with the combined group effort, but with where they’ll be able to take it. The problem this presents though, is when these guests do present themselves (and they are stretched pretty thin over the course of the album) they end up turning the specific tracks into oddities for their own creation and decimation. As much as everything on offer here will inherently be related to Battles, you just can’t help but notice as Gary Numan effortlessly turns ‘My Machines’ into his own space rock creation; ditto Kazu Makino’s appearance on ‘Sweetie & Shag’. It’s almost as if the guest spots provide some much needed breathing room for the group to reform, but the reality is that they almost fade completely into the background on these occasions.
For the record though, Gloss Drop
is still a fantastic release. The expert musicianship is still there in abundance and the trio performs to their strengths and capabilities admirably, but you just get the feeling that this new incarnation of Battles is still in its infancy and not quite ready or capable at taking on the world again just yet. With this long awaited follow up to Mirrored
, Battles do indeed drop the gloss and proceed almost exclusively down the straight and narrow. Granted that it’s still head and shoulders above just about anything else out there, but in its own way it’s still a quiet disappointment. What Gloss Drop
shows is that battles can be won in many ways, but strength in numbers will always be your greatest asset.