CD Review: Battles

Battles turned quite a few heads with 2007’s Mirrored. Like Tortoise, the band took experimental prog rock and made it cool for the lo-fi/postpunk set. Drummer John Stanier (formerly of Helmet), guitarists Ian Williams (Don Caballero) and Dave Konopka (Lynx), and vocalist Tyondai Braxton (who is the son of Anthony Braxton) injected dense instrumental passages into the narrative of indie rock.

Now comes the follow-up, Gloss Drop, and out goes Braxton, stripping the band to a trio — with special guests adding vocals to four tracks. The first minute and a half of the opening “Africastle” is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” but then the track departs into its own realm of time and space, with agitated beats fussing over a maelstrom of notes. This isn’t meant to be easy listening. Further proof: “Wall Street,” which mimics the sensory overload of that infamous Manhattan district.

For better or worse, the tracks with the guest vocalists are more accessible. Gary Numan paints a doomsday Goth scene for “My Machines.” Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino embellishes the dance track “Sweetie & Shag” with a falsetto worthy of Beck or Ween. But the electronic juke-joint number “Ice Cream,” featuring Chilean techno artist Matias Aguayo on vocals, is out of place here; it sounds like David Byrne’s worldbeat grooves have been twisted through a punk-rock-carnival-overdrive box. (Someone get Electro-Harmonix on the phone!)

Gloss Drop is a cold, messy album with so many abstract ideas happening at once that it’s hard to imagine anyone loving the music as much as appreciating the ambition. It’s intricate to the point of difficulty, lacking an emotional payoff. If only more tracks were like “White Electric,” which is not only intense but genuinely powerful. Otherwise, the band misses Braxton more than it realizes; he gave Battles a consistency with his inspired vocals (and a warmth with his orchestral loops). Without him, Gloss Drop is a hodgepodge, intermittently intriguing but mostly aimless.

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