Gloss Drop, the second album from the immediately legendary band Battles, has two issues to contend with right up front. The first has surely been weighing on their minds since they released Mirrored in 2007 to deservingly wild acclaim: how the hell do they follow their debut LP up? Mirrored was a relentless prog-metal funhouse, casually mind-blowing yet insistent on rubbing your face in how absurdly talented Battles is. Plus, it wasn’t just a showcase for their inimitable musicianship; it was great fun, stocked with all manner of kooky detours that left many hardened cynics guilelessly wondering what could come around the next corner. If Pixar started making metal albums, they may very well sound like Mirrored.
So even if Battles simply sticks with the formula that worked so well for them the first time, they can’t possibly replicate the same wonderment in their audience. On album two, Battles need to up the ante somehow, a task that’s made all the more difficult by the departure of founding member Tyondai Braxton (that’s issue two, for those of you keeping track). One listen to Braxton’s solo album, Central Market, instantly reveals what he brought to the group; the otherworldly vocals, the jaunty yet sinister whistling, the whole Fantasia-esque orchestration. Likely, Braxton’s absence means a Battles with less of a predilection towards madcap sounds like the industrial bounce of “Atlas” or the cascading symphonic metal of “Rainbow”.
Perhaps as a defensive response to that perceived loss, Battles chose “Ice Cream” as the first single of Gloss Drop. Not a bad choice, as that is probably the goofiest song on their entire sophomore record, and it still highlights their unmatchable chops. Happy synths and grunts tumble over each other until a driving beat comes in, syncing everyone in the band up with guest vocalist Matias Aguayo, who actually sings a pretty coherent melody by Battles’ standards.
Aguayo is actually one of several guest vocalists on Gloss Drop, and the line-up of singers recruited by Battles suggest that they have a pretty good idea about who would fit well into their idiosyncratic universe. Gary Numan drops by and acquits himself nicely on the propulsive “My Machines,” even if it seems like he’s meant to sound like a Braxton surrogate. And Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms (if ever there was a band that could claim to have directly influenced Battles) shows up for the sprawling “Sundome”, adding his usual fascinating inscrutability to the proceedings, though the song doesn’t quite capitalize on his presence.
As ever, Battles is an inarguably breathtaking instrumental band, but there’s a disappoint lack of growth on Gloss Drop. Fans of Mirrored’s “Tonto” will find plenty here to chew over, as Battles largely stick to forcefulness at the expense of their equally intriguing eccentric side. It’s completely understandable, maybe even necessary, considering the absence of a strong contributor and the high expectations brought on by a stunning debut. And Gloss Drop is plenty enjoyable, as brawny and kinetic as their previous album, with no real lows and a few obvious standouts (the delirious “Wall Streeet” in particular showcases how invaluable drummer John Stanier is). For any other band, this would be a career high.