When charismatic singer and sometime-leader Tyondai Braxton quit the band, Battles were an integral man down. Just how could they continue?
Braxton’s preoccupation with his solo career meant he didn’t want tour with his three math-rocking buddies. Battles however are a band that thrives, roars and channels its visceral essence in a live setting. Touring was essential.
Their crossroads on the path to splitting was at least amicable. But eyebrows were raised. How could Ian Williams, John Stanier and Dave Konopka continue without their talisman, experimental vocalist and focal point?
That question has been robustly answered with ‘Gloss Drop’ – their most coherent, evocative and seductive recording so far. And it’s up to their trippy best too. In fact, more than ever Battles’ music confers all sorts of psychedelic visualisations, ephemeral images of architecture, arching shapes and surfaces whilst they stuff ever more vivid colours into our ears. Synthesia, the neurological condition of hearing colours, is just one step once you possess ‘Gloss Drop’.
Few other bands can achieve this same strange perversion of synthesia. As a music lover of more experimental bands, there’s a handful of acts that can induce rare levels of visualisations, normally whilst stone cold sober: Autechre, Fuck Buttons and 65daysofstatic all induce bizarre confusion of the senses at their concerts.
But how do Battles manage to induce this acousto-neural trick that’s so pronounced? “I’m not sure,” says guitarist Dave Konopka. “I do agree with you that Autechre is completely successful at pulling that off, and a lot of that may have to do with the process or medium in which they use to create their music. The common thread is that Battles is essentially an electronic band through the medium and construct of a visceral rock band. With Battles this may be a by-product of our interest in utilizing ‘dynamic’ to the best of our ability when necessary. Any type of music that takes you away from your physical plane is doing the right thing. For some people, that might be Janis Joplin, for others, it might be Battles. All is good!”
And how do they get their music so fucking emotional? Drummer John Stainer picks up the point, this time utilising a different Joplin. “I’m very glad you think that. I feel all three of us have our own personal right to express ourselves within each song. However if there was a ‘sad soundtrack’ sounding song and Dave comes in with a Scott Joplin ragtime riff we would probably have a discussion, though thankfully this has not happened yet.”
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For the flavours we just need to turn to the track ‘Ice Cream’ featuring Matias Aguayo, experimental rock that sounds more like a lysergic beach orgy, fleshy and wriggling with sensation in the sunshine. Equally ‘Wall Street’ is a frantic farce of chrome guitars, a cacophony that sounds fraught with fear and suggests that at any juncture it could collapse. Gordon Brown might even dance, whilst guitarist Ian Williams reveals his visualisation: “To me it sounds just about right. Although my band mates also thought it sounded crazy. The first section makes me think of the sound that rich people make when partying on a yacht in the 1980s. We called it the ‘Sound Of Success’ when we were making that song. I even played YouTube clips from the movies American Psycho and Wall Street in the studio to get the vibe right.”
In the permanent void of Tyondai’s processed vocals, the remaining members opted to fill the need for some form of human voice by four carefully picked collaborators. Gary Numan arrives on the caustic ‘My Machines’, Matias Aguayo, a proven king of vocal manipulation after his ‘Ay Ay Ay’ release saw him create the entire album from his own throat, also turns up. The final two pieces of the jigsaw were comprised of Yamantaka Eye from The Boredoms and Kazu Makino from Blonde Redhead, both tethering Battles’ astral jaunts slightly closer to the Earth with recognizable lyrics.
Battles formulate their music in isolation from one another before uniting their dialogues into one unique story. This part of their sound design is crucial to the end result: “The narration of our songs is very natural,” reveals John. “Our songs tend to take on a life of their own from the very early stages. A ‘seed’ idea in the beginning might give off an obvious vibe, but once everyone gets their hands on it the end result is very often totally different than the suggested route.”
Often part of Battles’ problem is their sonic ideas harmonising. Dave explained to Clash during their writing phase in January that integration can be difficult, so just how much of a problem can three voices be when fighting it out for space within their sound? “I was beginning to feel like that a while ago, but now that we are a power trio I feel our message is much more direct and to the point. Within our music, we are in constant conversation.”
We can only agree. Tyondai’s departure has possibly increased Battles coherence. Yet they still tread a line that at some points remains near the ridiculous. Their track ‘Futura’ explodes like a baroque space opera evoking the thoughts of gigantic androids waltzing in the astral sunshine, gaily squirting mercury at one another. It’s vivid, shall we say.
So how closely do Battles monitor the distance from their creative outpost and their audience’s stylistic tolerance? “If it is too ridiculous it has to be within the correct context,” admits Dave. “A band like Battles can get away with a lot of stuff, but throughout the making of this album, we needed to check ourselves a few times, and reel it back in because we were so deeply entrenched within our own heads that we had the tendency to get really out there. Sometimes that does not always translate to an enjoyable listening experience when you lose track of how abstract part can become and how that may sound to fresh ears, it could be very jarring in a not so good way.”
‘Gloss Drop’ may exhaust some listeners, but probably will invigorate more. Before we depart the band and await their splintering shows with receptive minds, ready to dance to their architectural planes, we want to know what legacy the recording has left with the band.
“I’m not sure the dust has settled yet,” says a cautious Dave, “but at this point, the most puzzling element to me is the amount of emotion that has been wrung out in the making of this album, and how much of that comes through in the music. And that is something of a gift that was never anticipated while we were making this album, and something that can certainly not be faked.”
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Words: Matthew Bennett
This article originally appeared in Issue 63 of Clash Magazine. Battles will release new album 'La Di Da Di' on September 18th.