I’ll be honest: After months of listening, I’m still not entirely sure why I find Gloss Drop to be a disappointment. Maybe it’s a testament to how miraculous 2007’s Mirrored was, because at a cursory glance Gloss Drop has all the makings of a satisfactory follow-up. Yet somehow it lacks the explosiveness, urgency, and immediacy of its predecessor. Mirrored towered over you and pummeled you into the ground, but the discrepancy here doesn’t appear to be anything as superficial as a matter of volume, tempo, or performative agility. Even its lesser emphasis on guitars doesn’t seem to be at fault.
Others who share my reaction might be tempted to attribute this apparent faltering to the departure of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton prior to the album’s recording (and most of its writing), but I think that would be not only unfair but also inaccurate. This is unmistakably a Battles record, even with its surprising menagerie of guest vocalists, all of whom capably give fitting performances. But.
The front half of the record does pretty well. Opening track “Africastle” in particular begins in exactly the darkly foreboding way you want from a Battles record. “Futura” and “Inchworm” are skeletal, nervous guitar tracks that recall their 2004 EPs. Later, closer “Sundome” gives strong evidence that a post-Braxton Battles remains a viable force; it has a patience and focus that is missing from most of the remainder of the record and becomes one of the most memorable tracks here, while sounding wholly new.
Things begin to fall apart with “My Machines,” where Gary Numan (yes, that Gary Numan) hollers over a stubbornly ineffectual instrumental onslaught. Its white-knuckled repetitiveness fails to be overwhelming or truly imposing, and its hints of dissonance do little to give the track the vibrance that it so desperately tries to convince you it has. “Sweetie & Shag” (with Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino) feels like that contemporary phenomenon of listening to unfamiliar music on your computer when suddenly a video or song that has been buffering in a background tab begins to play, integrating well enough with the music for you not to notice until a minute or two later. I have to assume it’s meant to sound “messy” in a compelling way, but it doesn’t. “Dominican Fade,” however, might best represent where Gloss Drop fails. Although under two minutes in length, its almost disingenuous delivery of a half-baked song demonstrates so succinctly the particular quality of the record’s overall feebleness. I’d say that it “meanders” if not for the fact that it dwells on a single idea for its entire duration, which consists of an uninspired guitar riff and just enough additional instrumentation to give it the illusion of songhood.
In a word, Gloss Drop just sounds confused, and its structures don’t challenge or excite. Still, it’s nice to check in with Battles, and in all likelihood they’ll remain vital for years to come. Despite all that I’ve said, a misstep of a Battles record is still better than most bands can dream of. But given their pedigree, it’s achingly clear how much more they’re capable of. Let’s wait till they regain their bearings and enjoy their ongoing tourdates in the meantime.