"I can't imagine making a more difficult album," Battles drummer John Stanier says when asked to describe the process behind Gloss Drop, the first full-length in four years from the recently downsized (once a quartet, now a trio) post-math-rock ensemble.
Though the band's 2007 record, Mirrored, catapulted the previously cult group into broader popular awareness, that crossover success didn't contribute to a smooth followup. Stanier describes the past four years as "incredibly difficult" and rife with "personal issues" and "a lot of heavy stuff." But he also admits that, when it came to the band, much of the stalling came from recently departed second guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist Tyondai Braxton.
He cites Braxton's reluctance to tour as one crux of the band's tension: "He didn't want to tour. He didn't want to work, really." But the drummer also notes a shared displeasure among Battles' members with the direction of their music as shaped by Braxton's vocals.
Up to Mirrored, Battles had displayed a knack for the kind of intricately experimental compositions (not unlike Steve Reich rock epics) that would dominate the group's breakthrough album. But the record also debuted Braxton's heavily effected chipmunk vocals, slathered all over the group's signature pulsing, slowly morphing aural fractals.
"We are a group that doesn't have a lead singer," Stanier says, almost as though it were the moral of the story. That realization, and Braxton's parallel departure, forced Battles to "reinvent [themselves] in the middle of making the record."
Despite these tense and tedious circumstances, Gloss Drop not only marks a return to the complex, instrumental-driven experiments of Battles' early work, but also showcases the band at its most celebratory. "Inchworm" displays the groups signature mathy chops while bouncing along with playful steel drums and sleigh bells. The rock intensity and swelling digital flourishes of "White Electric" endow the song with the triumphant bravado of a grand symphony. And "Dominican Fade" wouldn't be out of place blasting at a Carnival street party.
But while Gloss Drop has refocused the band as a primarily instrumental affair, four of the album's 13 tracks feature deliberate, handpicked cameos by big indie-rock and experimental-music names such as Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, the Boredoms' Yamantaka Eye, and Chilean producer Matias Aguayo. Gary Numan, of all people, appears as well.
These four collaborations are best-case-scenario products from the band's trial-and-error dalliances with vocals. Where Braxton's presence on Mirrored might have been too pronounced and even goofy, the guest spots on Gloss Drop give the record an appropriately measured dose of pop.