By Zachary Swickey
New York City indie noisemakers Battles will be celebrating their tenth anniversary next year and it’s been quite the tumultuous journey for the trio. Not many bands can boast guest appearances from Gary Numan (“Cars”) or indie darlings Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino on their new record, but I imagine it went rather smoothly for Battles – a band that flies under the mainstream radar but has caught the ears of many dedicated audiophiles.
Battles are a trio, consisting of guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, bassist/guitarist/effects master Dave Konopka, and drummer John Stanier, who is the ex-stickman for '90s alt-rock outfit Helmet as well as the drummer for Tomahawk, one of Faith No More singer Mike Patton’s many side projects. The group originated as a quartet that included multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Baxton, who was also the first to inject vocals into the predominantly instrumental group’s sound, but he abruptly left Battles last year in the middle of recording process for the group’s sophomore effort. The band continued on with no plans to replace Baxton, instead readjusting their style to once again focus on the music with minimal vocals.
Battles released a series of two instrumental EPs with impossible song titles to remember like “TRAS 2” and “SZ2” before dropping their official debut, Mirrored, in 2007 on legendary electronic label Warp (home of other Bands We Like outfit CANT). “Atlas” is a fun, bouncy number that sounds like a march being led by a munchkin from "The Wizard of Oz," but it’s ridiculously infectious and got the group plenty of indie love. The production on their records is one of the highlights – you can hear the rich sound of each instrument with great clarity: the drums are surprisingly real and raw and the grungy synth sounds have never sounded dirtier (and that’s a good thing). For one of Stanier’s greatest moments, check out the neck-break speed drumming found on “Rainbow,” which clearly proves the man cannot be mortal.
Writing for the group’s follow-up album finally commenced in 2010 and the process was going smoothly until (as mentioned) Tyondai Baxton decided to depart the group when they were already halfway done. Baxton preferred a life that did not include touring and has since returned to being a solo artist. Carrying on as a trio, the remaining members re-wrote the entire work in only four months time.
Released on June 6, Battles’ sophomore release Gloss Drop expands on the group’s schizo-sound with more ruckus than ever. The guest vocal tracks are standouts thanks to what I’ll call the “Three Bear’s ethic” (these voices sound juuust right). Stalwart techno mastermind Matias Aguayo provides his lungs (and grunts) on the album’s first single, “Ice Cream,” which is playful tune that features all sorts of bleeps and blurps that could easily be from an array of vintage video games. Gary Numan’s appearance on “My Machines” is most certainly worth checking out too – the drums sound like a weapon and the low-end warble intro will coax you in like a cow about to be slaughtered. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a conductor hop on stage for live renditions of “White Electric” with its smorgasbord of sounds swirling about – forming a maniacal audio cocktail.
Several critics refer to Battles as some sort of math rock band, while I find “calculated” a much more suitable term – as insane as the hodge-podge of sounds may seem, it’s all cohesive somehow. The live drums help ground the group and Stanier’s impressive skills will leave you in awe. Battles will be hitting up Australia’s iconic Big Day Out music festival at the dawn of 2012, and hopefully they’ll be announcing a spring tour of the states soon for us to get excited about.