[The New Classics is a reoccurring segment in which we examine our favorite indie releases that are bound to replace our parent’s “classic rock” stash hidden in the attic or the basement. These aren’t reviews, these are unedited testimonies and opinions about why we love what we love. Can we get a witness?]
Words by Rick Moslen
Yep, so I’ve got the VIA fever. Now I know what you’re thinking: how can I associate an album only released a mere four months ago with the word “classic?” Well remember, these are “NEW classics” we’re talking about (emphasis on “new”). Sure, maybe “Premature Classic” makes more sense, but this is clearly my favorite release so far this year, and the band remains technologically more-advanced than almost any contemporary rock band. So let me explain why Battles’ newest release, Gloss Drop, screams “new classic.”
My first experience with these fresh tracks wasn’t via CD or mp3 or vinyl, but during a live show. I caught Battles last summer at a music festival. By the time they approached their guitars, loop stations, and drum set (with the overly high crash cymbal in place) on stage, I was exhausted and mentally drenched due to lack of sleep (and also the alcohol, and I probably had to pee too but decided to hold it until the end of their set so I wouldn’t miss anything) … so I was uncomfortable to say the least. The opening mass of sounds blasted from their giant Ampeg bass amps at 3:45 AM, and even though I contemplated an early exit, I instead stayed in place. Within quick minutes, the massive synths and overwhelming loops jolted me soberly awake. When John Stanier rolled into his mammoth drumbeat behind the urgent Gloss Drop opening track “Africastle,” like old-lady-church-music would sing, it was suddenly well with my soul. Battles: the highlight of my festival experience. I bought the vinyl that night, downloaded the album the next morning, and it became the soundtrack for the rest of my European trip … quite the memory.
Battles formed in 2002 with the grouping of Dave Konopka (Lynx), John Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk), experimental musician Tyondai Braxton, and Pittsburgher (well, technically Johnstowner) Ian Williams of Don Caballero and Storm & Stress. After releasing some mighty fine EPs, the band gave us 2006’s Mirrored—an album both dark and playful (sometimes both at once). Then in the midst of new material, Braxton left the band during Gloss Drop’s writing sessions … loser.
Granted, it’s a pain in the ass for any band dealing with band-member-loss syndrome, but to add, Braxton was the singer/guitarist in the band, which put a strain not only on the band dynamic but also on their actual sound. 99% of bands lose steam after their lead singer moves on to shittier endeavors (see Black Flag, The Misfits, Black Sabbath, and countless others for more proof of this), but Battles instead utilized this departure to create an album more unique, meaningful, and likeable while still grasping their experimental edge. They’re now a much stronger band!
Categorize Gloss Drop as loopy math rock. Call it post-dancetronica. Impress your friends by naming it 21st century krautrock. But to be honest, forget stupid genre labels for 54 minutes and enjoy it for what it is, because no band sounds like Battles. Their sound draws from the trio’s past influences and a love for electronic music, as well as everything from calypso percussion rhythms to good, old-fashioned complex rock jams.
The album lives up to their live show. With the lack of a lead singer (which they only seldom used anyways), guest vocalists pop up, but never hog the spotlight. When I first heard lead single “Ice Cream” a month or two before the album release, confusion filled my brain. Was it music fit for a dance party or a sexy party? (Whatever music jams at “sexy parties” I certainly wouldn’t know—not Battles music, though, right?) What happened to the complex Battles who utilized cartoon voices and apocalyptic drumbeats? After a few listens, the infectious keyboard/guitar hybrid noise and vocals provided by DJ Matias Aguayo suddenly made sense, and I loved it.
For as much as Battles still sounds vaguely like its old self, plenty of variety still exists. Things take on a creepy foreboding tone during third track “Futura” while still maintaining a solid uppity groove. “Dominican Fade” and “Wall Street” prove why Steiner remains one of my favorite drummers out there … seriously, almost every other drummer sounds like an frail old man behind the kit compared to him. My album highlight is easily closing track “Sundrome,” featuring Yamantaka Eye from Japan’s greatest band, The Boredoms. My iPod playlist counts 12 plays of that song so far, and every listen to the song’s 7 ½ minute buildup ends up being my favorite minutes of 2011.
I’m not one to rant about album production, but when an album sounds incredible, it’s worth mentioning. And holy shit does this album sound incredible! How does Ian Williams get those guitar tones? I can’t tell whether the man’s playing a keyboard or an electric guitar. Surprise! He’s often playing both … at the same time (check out some live vids if you don’t believe me). Now onto Steiner’s drum sounds … wow, can you say “massive?” Set the stereo volume knob immediately below “blow a speaker volume” in your car, and you’ll sense his drums impelling you into oncoming traffic during Gary Numan-led single “My Machines.” The production quality brings his technical precision to the forefront of the mix, and it doesn’t get old.
To conclude, this album could have equaled a turn for the worst—hell, the first sign of doom was the lack of the guitars. Instead, they created an album that takes a few listens to appreciate, but after many, you’ll love it (even the creamy pink artwork). It’ll be remembered ten years from now as a new classic — I’m just starting the trend early.
The album gets 12 +1’s on Google, 12 “likes” on the Facebook thing, and 12 “drawn lines” on Draw Us Lines.