"When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you'd had that idea. And when I saw Battles I thought, 'Damn! Why didn't I think of that?'" ~ Battles fan Brian Eno.
You can often spot the best bands – the truly once-in-a-generation type – by their names alone. The all time greats usually come ready made with nomenclature that encapsulates their sound and ethos effortlessly. BATTLES are no exception. They are a rock group locked in conflict with the very limitations of what it means to be a rock group; conducting an all out assault on mediocrity and waging a fearsome campaign against genre conventions and pigeonholes. Their sound is that of an elite guard engaging in a series of complex sonic skirmishes. This is the sublime noise of equally talented musicians pushed to their limit – as interested in conducting synchronized audio attacks and ambushes on the listener as they are on each other.
If you are reading this, it means you're about to listen to their new album GLOSS DROP, a remarkable second album by anyone's standards… including their own.
BATTLES came together in New York in 2002 drawing together disparate strands of hardcore, avant garde tonal minimalism, neo-classical, techno and post rock, featuring drummer John Stanier (Helmet), guitarists Ian Williams (Don Caballero) and Dave Konopka (Lynx) and Tyondai Braxton. After a string of EPs, the group signed to WARP and released their debut MIRRORED in 2007.
The success of the album was immediate and profound. BBC Music called BATTLES "the best band on Earth today" and Pitchfork awarded the album an impressive 9.1, bestowing the Best New Music seal of approval on it. NME were equally enthusiastic, stating: "MIRRORED is the sort of album that the sharp rock kids will be citing as an inspiration in a decade's time", while TIME Magazine made it their # 7 album of the year.
During the winter of 2009, the band decamped to the Machines with Magnets studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to start work on a follow up. They recorded nearly an entire album, and by Autumn 2010 were ready to start mixing when things came off the rails. It was at this point that Braxton realised he just couldn't commit to the overwhelming touring schedule that was due to follow the release of their much anticipated second album and quit the band.
You only have to check the message boards to see how many thousands of unfinished and unrealised albums there are out there; tapes and CDs left in dark, dusty studio basements to become musical footnotes. It is down to BATTLES' resolve and resilience that GLOSS DROP did not become one itself. John Stanier says: "After he left there was never any question of us stopping. We all knew we were going to carry on. It was almost to the point where I was beyond caring about anything else that happened. I was ready to squeeze my last drop of blood into this record… I became obsessed with not just completing it but having it be really good as well. It's by far and away the greatest achievement of my entire life. It's our grand statement."
The existence of BATTLES revolves around one key construct: that Battles as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts…even if those parts all happened to be particularly beautifully constructed and intricately interlocking. BATTLES was bigger than any four of them individually and would continue.
With Braxton gone they began the unenviable process of unweaving all of his parts from the whole in order to construct something entirely new from what remained. The remaining three realized that they now had natural space on some tracks to invite guest vocalists to contribute. And only an endlessly curious band like BATTLES could have assembled such a variety of talented, well respected and diverse singers. Appearing on the album is the UK's dark synth pop pioneer Gary Numan; Chilean born Kompakt minimal techno producer Matias Aguayo; cult indie rocker Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead; and Yamantaka Eye, the messianic dreadlocked front man of Japanese cosmiche future beat unit, the Boredoms.
While there are a couple of precedents in the field of dance music with Massive Attack and Chemical Brothers roping in a cast of guest stars to sing, BATTLES had become the first major rock act to do anything similar.
It is true that GLOSS DROP is a bewitching, entrancing album that defies both categorization and easy analysis. Just as MIRRORED was a massive leap on from the early EPs that first got them noticed, this is truly another seismic shift, propelling them once more into uncharted territory. The opening track Africastle provides a bridge between their debut and a dazzling new sound. Some will undoubtedly be wondering if the three-piece BATTLES will now necessarily feel a lot lighter but this is the densest track they have recorded to date. It shines with fractal clarity and the closer you get to it and the more you examine it, the more glorious detail it reveals. Listeners could be forgiven for thinking they were listening to Glenn Branca conducting an army of twenty miniature BATTLES, all playing complex melodies and counter melodies in fiendishly interwoven rounds.
Ice Cream's neat trick is to rope in the impish minimal techno DJ, Matias Aguayo, and use him solely on vocals. This track, which will be the first single, unveils a mischievous sense of fun that now lies at the centre of the BATTLES sound, coming on like the soundtrack to a raucous, moonlit beach party in Brazil, matching the inventiveness of 21st Century prog with the lilt of 1960s Tropicalia. Stanier, a former resident of Germany and techno aficionado, says: "Cologne is an amazing place to live. You can go out and see people like Michael Mayer two or three times a month. I lived on the same block as the Kompakt headquarters and started hanging out with them. I was always really into Matias Aguayo – I'm a really big fan of his, so we had to get him involved."
My Machines features Tubeway Army's soulful voice of dark future shock Gary Numan adding weight and clarity to an intensely muscular tribal rhythm section. It's an audacious song and the band are still clearly buzzing when they talk about it. Williams says: "We had no idea if his vocals would fit with the music or not but when I first heard it, I came out of there like I was high. I was like, 'Holy shit! Gary Numan is singing on My Machines and it sounds really, really good.'" The iconic singer responsible for the number one singles Cars and 'Are Friends Electric?' paid tribute to the group in return: "Working with BATTLES was an easy choice for me. They have a unique approach to making music and a clear idea of what they want. They are inventive, adventurous, unpredictable and I'm proud to be involved."
Friend of the band, Kazu Makino of cult New York trio Blonde Redhead adds her breathless vocals to the itchy infectious dance punk of Sweetie & Shag, its easy tactile funk, showing yet again BATTLES' peerless skill in reinterpreting dance beats as a rock unit.
Masters of delayed gratification, they save what is perhaps one of their most enjoyable moments to date until the last track, Sundome. Yamantaka Eye presides over what carnival music in Valhalla must sound like. His reverberating Shamanistic chanting, makes it sound like an interstellar ragga MC has just alighted from a passing mothership.
And it is this sheer sense of fun, unpredictability and inventiveness that sets BATTLES apart from every other contemporary group. Stanier sums this up succinctly: "I don't think challenging, new music has to be super serious all the time. That's really boring to me and pushing boundaries should not be boring."
While other acts are content to deal in revivalism or stasis, BATTLES are still looking for far-off boundaries to study and then demolish, searching for new and exotic styles to mesh together. Stanier concludes: "When we're writing songs, no one in this group has ever said 'Wait, we've gone too far. This isn't a BATTLES song.' Because what is a BATTLES song? We don't know. All I know is that there are no parameters and no boundaries. That is the whole point and has been since day one."