NYC's Battles to play Crowbar this Wednesday

The John Stanier-led group loses a member and produces an epic record.

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click to enlarge Battles is (from left) Ian Williams, John Stanier and Dave Konopka. - Jason Frank Rothenberg
Jason Frank Rothenberg
Battles is (from left) Ian Williams, John Stanier and Dave Konopka.

With 2007's widely well-regarded Mirrored, Battles made its international debut as a sonically adventurous rock outfit that drove its math and prog-fueled technicality to bizarroland. Maintaining a solid instrumental foundation, the band built upon it with a barrage of experimental tricks — machine-gun guitar loops, powerful robo-rhythms, de-humanized vocals and whistles. "We were so eager to prove that we were a band worthy of people's attention," Battles bassist/guitarist/effects man Dave Konopka told me in a recent interview. "And that we could be cinematic, that we could be messy, and that we have a sense of humor, but we could also be dark."

Battles was called an indie rock supergroup by some, and whether this was true or not, the band was treated to a sort of insta-indie street cred because of the pedigree of the musicians — chief among them Helmet drummer John Stanier, but also ex-Don Caballero guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, Konopka, formerly of Lynx, and vocalist/guitarist Tyondai Braxton.

The four-piece spent two years touring extensively in support of Mirrored and finally took a break at the end of 2009 to relax, recoup and start work on their respective ideas for a follow-up. When the musicians re-convened in 2010, they jumped from one rehearsal space to another trying to get inspired and shake off the feeling that something just wasn't working. Or someone. The Big White Elephant in the band was Braxton, his pre-occupation with his own solo album and career translating into a disinterest in Battles. This fact finally came to light when they hit the studio. "It wasn't until then that Ty decided he didn't want to be part of this anymore. But I think he probably already made up his mind about that a long time before."

Konopka said the change was ultimately a good one. Ending Battles wasn't an option for the three remaining musicians — "It was necessary for this band to still exist" — so they soldiered on, making adjustments to their material, trying out different processes and techniques to better accommodate the reduced lineup, and returning to the studio to record Gloss Drop as a trio, which Konopka said worked surprisingly well. "There's more space for us to play with, and I think we gel more as a tightly woven organism." Konopka explained that with only three members, there's also a lot more responsibility and sonic real estate to be claimed. "Balancing that out is kind of fun, too, and lends itself to some interesting improvisational transitions."

Whereas Mirrored established Battles as a band that could take it way out there, Gloss Drop was more about proving they could rein it in. "I think we were more interested in playing music that was a little more fun and maybe accessible and maybe more approachable and danceable, and just playing with those ideas more so this time than, like, trying to prove we were Ennio Morricone or something," Konopka laughed.

The album is still absurd and idiosyncratic in a very Battles sort of way — the distinctive whistling is intact, as is the band's trademark display of vigorously impressive musicianship, though Gloss Drop has a more a buoyant and sunny-weird vibe than its predecessor, playful and even sexy moments set amid powerful chugging aggression and brooding menace. An eclectic scattering of guest vocalists adds bursts of sonic appeal to the album; the singers were enlisted after band members realized they didn't want to continue as a purely instrumental project.

Among those they tapped was Chilean vocalist Matias Aguayo, who appears on Gloss Drop's quirky island-flavored lead single (and soundtrack to the FIFA Soccer 12 game commercials), "Ice Cream." Aguayo's style was more conducive to the way the band worked with vocals in the past. "He uses his voice as an instrument a lot," Konopka said, pointing out that Aguayo's fast-paced multi-lingual rhymes and tongue-twisted gibberish "brought in this Tropicália vibe and this bizarre level of, like, sexiness that was way more than what we could have done for it."

Another name on their wish list of guests was electronic music pioneer Gary Numan. "We almost laughed at the idea 'cause we thought it was never gonna happen. But we actually followed through with asking him and he was interested." His high icy wails are a perfect accoutrement to the metallic propulsion of "My Machines," though the first take he sent them didn't really work. "At the heart of asking Gary Numan, we knew we could get something that would be a really great synthesis between what he does and what we do," Konopka said. "So we asked him very politely, 'Hey we're just wondering if you would be interested in taking another shot at the vocals and maybe make them a little less emotional?'" Numan graciously obliged and the next take, he nailed it. "The end result was really perfect."

Each guest added something special to the album. "Their contribution brought those songs to a completely different level of what we could have ever achieved on our own, or if they were instrumental, or if we tried singing them ourselves," Kanopka said.

No vocalists will join Battles on the road. As far as how they will present the vocal tracks, "Well, that might be something interesting to wait and see when we're in Tampa," Konopka said slyly. "I'll leave it at: We are solving that problem technologically in that our guest vocalists are virtually with us every night."

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