A math-rock supergroup loses its voice, and gets some soul

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Battles playing, sans Tyondai Braxton. (Photo by Vince Kmeron via flickr.)
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In 2007, the experimental-rock super group Battles was catapulted to indie fame and fortune with the topsy-turvy, squelching voice of its lead singer, the composer Tyondai Braxton, with the single “Atlas.”

The four-piece group was already accomplished in the rarefied circles of math rock, the indie-experimental genre known for its obscure time signatures and angular, atmospheric playing of pretty much traditional rock and roll instruments. The two guitarists, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka, had helped pioneer the genre in previous stints with the bands Don Caballero and Lynx, respectively; drummer John Stanier is a graduate of New York's own alt-metal group Helmet.

But Braxton was the glamour-child: He was the vocalist, which by the old rock and roll convention makes you the frontman even in such an esoteric outfit. He's the son of avant-garde composer, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and philosopher Anthony Braxton, and himself has been associated with Glenn Branca, Kronos Quartet and the Bang on a Can collective.

In August 2009, more than three years after the release of their first full-length album, Mirrored,, the band issued a terse statement saying that Braxton was leaving the band to pursue his own projects, and the mythmaking band found itself operating on a different storyline: Music blogs and forums were speculating whether the band could continue without him.

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Today, Battles released its hotly anticipated sophomore effort, Gloss Drop, and lead guitarist Williams says he's pleased with the results.

“So how do you make your follow-up better?" Williams said in a telephone interview. "In a way, things kind of got fucked up by the time Ty [Tyondai] left. So it was actually pretty good, it took away any comfort."

“A lot of the raw material we had for this record, a lot of it was written by Dave and me," Williams said. "Ty was just playing a lead singer role on the material we were working on. So it didn’t really subvert the intention too much of the songs we were making on for this record.”

There's some credibility to this. Of course the guy they lost has just debuted at Lincoln Center with the Wordless Music Orchestra, with whom, in 2009, after Battles' first album, Braxton released his solo album, Central Market. That album got raves from the critics, including that enviable 8.0 score from the new-music arbiters over at Pitchfork. With nearly four years since its last album, and without being able to piggyback on the skyrocketing solo career of its lead singer, the Battles question is really about whether they can get the buzz they need to make this album and its supporting tour a commercial success.

OF COURSE, THE OTHER GUYS IN THE BAND AREN'T exactly nobodies, least of all Williams himself. Born in 1970, Williams looks a bit like a hipster dad, fresh off a casting call for Dazed and Confuzed and back in his Brooks Brothers duds. Goofy kids who make it out of towns like Jonestown, Penn. as demigods of modern rock have their own kind of glamour.

In April, Battles was well on its way to completing work on this new album when I watched them take the stage at Le Poisson Rouge, the arthouse music venue on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The crowd went wild for Williams.

If Ty Braxton was the face of the Battles franchise, Williams has been the king of the scene Battles grew from. He had a walk-on role in the record-store geek freak-out movie High Fidelity: As John Cusack whispers to one of his employees that he's "about to sell “five copies of The Three E.P.’s by the Beta Band” and puts on the then-obscure British folktronica outfit's track, "Dry the Rain." The camera pans across the shop, where Williams is seen chewing gum and bobbing his head along to the music, turning to a female patron to acknowledge their mutual presence in this moment of coolness. (Perversely, Cusack sold many more than five copies with that scene: the band enjoyed a brief boomtime in the U.S. as a result of the minute-long segment of that song playing in the movie.)

Williams as record-store geek-lothario is a nice framework to view him in: He's all about the music, but he's also all about connecting. Early recordings from Williams' first band, Don Caballero, came off as pseudo-metal with dense fluctuating time-signatures and no vocals. But the sound evolved as Don Cab kept the instrumentals and evolved into an almost jazz-rock band. Their last album, American Don, serves up nine slow jams with silly titles like “Details On How To Get ICEMAN On Your License Plate.”

The band pioneered the slow-burning math rock genre with loops (in which the guitarists record and repeat a certain guitar part throughout the song and are able to layer and change the sound of the recorded part), fingertapping guitar playing and spastic time changes. It was not for everyone: Don Cab along with bands like Polvo only thrived in small but dedicated college fan bases: the Chapel Hill scene or the more college-inflected music scenes of the Upper Midwest. At the same time, Williams sang and played in another band, called Storm and Stress, that had a freer, jazzier sound.

In a lot of ways, Battles, formed after all of the members moved to New York City in 2002, has embodied that balancing act, with its metal drumming styles and guitar tapping for instrumentation and compositions that owe as much to jazz or angular "contemporary classical" music as rock: Imagine Steve Reich composing for dance-rock band LCD Soundsystem. But at times they are maximalists using layers of repetition to create a sound that Brian Eno has said he wished he'd thought of himself. It is extreme and yet one of the most original sounds right now.

“Naturally, I’ve never been able to draw myself into making the same record twice," Williams said. "The sounds and attitudes of stuff had already evolved after we had started making the material for the new album. So it had a certain new logic for itself.”

“We’re still using loops but the loops themselves have become a little more disguised, a little more shifting. It’s not so much about hitting you in the head with that same phrase again and again. The “loopiness” is still there but it’s sort of evolved.”

His hyper fast keyboard-guitar tapping routine has been modified to be "less novel," he said.

"Certain techniques deliver a novelty effect. It becomes fun and interesting for a while. I guess it’s sort of boring at times but I’m doing that less, looking for new tricks.”

The inevitable pull being exerted on Braxton elsewhere in the new music scene only protracted the band's creative process after their first album. And in some ways, the departure of Braxton, which removed the relatable, sympathetic voice bringing the message of Battles' music and ideas home to the listener, provided just the vacuum Williams and company needed to finish the album and find the "new thing."

(Above: Official video for the new single, "Ice Cream.")

"It took a year and a half to get to that point and when he left, in four months we made Gloss Drop.”

It would seem to be almost a cheat not to replace Braxton and instead to bring on guest vocalists. But after all, if one of the main things they lost in Braxton had been an ambassador, why not go the more traditional route of offering the role as a ceremonial post to people whose place in the music firmament is already set? The guest vocalists that join in on Gloss Drop are not a predictable set, but they're carefully chosen. Since they’re known as a “guy band,” Williams said, he invited the breathy Kazu Makino, the sort-of spectral familiar of Astrud Gilberto who sings for Blonde Redhead to test the band for a wider audience. “Just to see if we could do that kind of thing,” he said.

To place themselves more purely in the mindset of the "International" music set they hired the Argentinian house D.J. Matias Aguayo and Yamantaka Eye, the hyper-weird leader of Japanoise band Boredoms. And for historical cred, the brooding godfather of British synth-pop Gary Numan.

It would almost seem as if Battles are firing off songs in different directions just to see if anyone will notice.

“It’s kind of like a strange dome but I kind of like that," Williams said. "Sort of like conceptually freeing because your not really held down by the band."

The album begins with a river of delayed guitars over a playful keyboard melody, no drums. The keyboard grows earnest and then Stanier hits the bass tom and then the song, "Africastle," really begins. It has the body of the classic alt-rock tune, a simple riff wrapped up in big ideas, but Williams’ keyboard melodies give it another edge. This is Williams saying, “Hey guys, we’re back!”

“Africastle” is resolved by “Ice Cream,” Battles’ answer to Latin pop and the first single to be released from this full-length album. Here's another offbeat melody that is immediately shifted into a loop and thrown back at the listener for the remainder of the song. As the band plays up the sand and surf vibes, Matias Aguayo raps and sings over the track: the message seems to be that rock shouldn't be hard to listen to just because it's not easy to make, and casual listeners are welcome.

Gloss Drop will disappoint plenty who want the music to stay hard and inaccessible, who want to be in the magic circle. But the album is like a template for math rock to get up out of mom's basement and embrace the pop world; for better and worse, those thickets of fascinating loops and taps becomes more like a highly electronic jam band. We'll see if it works.