Battles Profile (Boston Globe, 10/1/11)

Posted on November 6, 2011

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Battles keeps building its sound and success

It made sense for the tech-savvy trio Battles, which has spent years establishing itself among the new music elite, to invite ’80s new-wave pioneer Gary Numan for a guest spot on the group’s latest album, “Gloss Drop.’’ The ageless Brit, known for his groundbreaking 1979 song “Cars,’’ was happy to oblige and soon got to work on the track the band had sent over to his computer.

The first attempt didn’t work out.

“I did it totally wrong,’’ Numan says from his home in East Sussex,England. “I’m supposed to be the godfather of electronic music, so I shouldn’t admit this. When I got the files, I didn’t realize that they were playing at half speed and just recorded it that way. I sent it back to them with this vocal over it that way, and I think they thought I was being mad and eccentric and courageous or something.’’

Another stab yielded “My Machines,’’ a swirling anthem more straightforward than anything on past albums, with a hook that never really repeats and vintage, soaring vocals from Numan. The song’s video shows an unsuspecting shopper stuck on perpetual pratfall down an escalator. The record showcases the most ecstatic examples yet of Battles in those paradoxical moments where music is caught in a tumbling, unexplored territory. Numan, for one, took notice.

“I was really humbled to be asked to work with them,’’ he says. “They’re doing something quite a bit different.’’

Battles, which performs at Royale tomorrow night, has revealed itself slowly over the years. Early adopters drooled over personnel that included guitarists Ian Williams of Don Caballero and Dave Konopka fromBoston’s Lynx, drummer John Stanier from Helmet, and a rising star inBrooklynnamed Tyondai Braxton, who had been working heavily on solo digital looping projects.

The group scattered sparse songs and droning fragments over a handful of EPs in 2004, using thorny bits of guitar and drums as skeletons to support more and more new parts as the songs went on.

“Our process has always led itself to a gradual building – this additive process of composition,’’ says Williams.

The group’s debut full-length, “Mirrored,’’ came out in 2007. It and the live performances that followed made the band torchbearers for a cerebral new music that was equal parts dance strobes and swooping Stravinsky. Battles conquered fans across genres, embarked on big tours ofJapan, and popped up in Audi commercials and the “Twilight’’ soundtrack.

Halfway through recording the follow-up, Braxton departed the group, which left the rest of the members at an even busier crossroads than they thought, pressed to make a new album from scratch.

Old rules served them well. They stripped down the manic swells and upped the reliance on interlocking rhythms and the drive force of Stanier’s drumming. Guitars and keyboard loops are more elastic than ever, ping-ponging across speakers and coursing past one another like hyper marching-band drills.

But the scope never really left the dance floor, though, and that’s a good thing. The more terrestrial ambitions here are what give the songs on “Gloss Drop’’ their steady footing.

“I think it’s a little less heavy-handed,’’ says Williams. “It’s just things that we’ve always used to make sounds and rhythms and textures. It’s similar to what we did on the earlier material, but we’d gotten a bit more confident in the process we used. So rather than just parking the song at a place where it’s just a neutral statement, we could go a little further with it and create a sort of emotional piece of music that you might even call a pop song.’’

It’s true that a few of the songs could almost pass for standard pop compositions – lead single “Ice Cream,’’ in particular, takes glee in the hyperactive vocal performance from Matias Aguayo. But there’s plenty of room for the songs to meander as well. Sometimes that works, like the searching “Inchworm,’’ and sometimes it gets lost, like on “Sundome.’’

Either way, it’s the band’s relaxed approach to balancing experimentation and songcraft that makes it such a great record. In fact, Williams doesn’t betray a great deal of ambition to be much more than an average band of musicians.

“We’re basically what I think of as a garage band that exists in 2011,’’ he says. “If you went to any of these local big music chains, you’d find everything we’re using. So we’re just an honest reflection of that, as opposed to just jumping onto some conscious retro, old-fashioned thing.’’

Originally published in the Boston Globe here.

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