BATTLES’ syncopated loops may circle triumphantly around the drains of the mind but its lineup has not fared as well. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton exited after 2007’s Mirrored, leaving the group with guest vocalists for 2011’s Gloss Drop, and then bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka departed last year. But, as much as the Pitchforks and taste-makers of the world want to dismiss the band’s new two-man lineup as somehow reductive or diminutive, rest assured, BATTLES’ new LP, Juice B Crypts, is a worthy addition to the group’s wondrous canon.
The duo does not suffer for a lack of ideas, that’s for sure. (In fact, the opposite is true: the record is densely layered, even overflowing, with ideas.) Yes, there’s evidence of its return to Gloss Drop-style descents on the single “Titanium 2 Step,” where no-wave icon Sal Principato offers wordless skats and double-takes over funky refrains. But, elsewhere, the duo’s new mission is writ large; take a song like “They Placed It Twice,” where the inherent beauty and shine and shimmer of Ian Williams’ Tron-by-way-of-Trans Am electronic textures is heightened by crystalline vocals from Berklee-trained polymath Xenia Rubinos. For those wondering if this attention to some aurally pleasing sound and not just knotted for knotted’s effect is genuine, the band follows it up by slicing up (to great effect) unembellished vocals from Yes frontman Jon Anderson in “Sugar Foot.” There, the propulsive verses (thanks, John Stanier) hint at real emotional progression, not just the iciness of technique.
But that’s not too say this is a simple record – far from it. “IZM” exacerbates the avant-rap of guest Shabazz Palaces, and is the most consciously hip-hop-oriented song in BATTLES’ increasingly eclectic discography. The opening of the too-short “Hiro,” where a staccato line on piano gets into an argument with burbling synth bleeps, is a wonderful little snapshot of manipulated time signatures. “Fort Greene Rock,” the most conventionally post-rock-ish of the record’s 11 tracks, does the infamous BATTLES trick of blurring the line between treated guitar and synthesizer, to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell which pattern is nearing a crescendo and which is keeping its cool. And “Last Supper on Shasta,” split here into two suites, is Epic with a capital E. (The piano closing is an interesting aside, even a touching gesture, but, um, weird, too.)
The new record is a bit of a departure for those who cut their teeth on the more guitar-oriented math-rock-isms of 2015’s La Di Da Di. But the attention to sonic depth and, yes, above all, intricate textures is still front and center. The lineup might be different but this is still BATTLES and it is still mighty good. Now, Stanier: don’t go getting any clever ideas. We can’t leave Ian lonely.