It’s always worrisome when a key band loses a core contributor, especially when it’s early in the growth trajectory. That’s was the case when Tyondai Braxton announced his departure from Battles in 2010. I was certainly not alone in wondering exactly how the remaining members would adapt to the vacated space of Braxton’s seemingly integral personality. The addition of his vocals to 2007’s excellent MIRRORED signified a notable shift in the band’s sound away from the icy instrumental prog-informed math-rock of their early EPs and toward a slightly warmer collusion of those proggy ideas with the prickly additive of intellectual dance/techno hoohah. What Braxton brought to the plate on MIRRORED felt essential to the band’s heightened focus on the bodily oriented energy necessary to whip crowds in large halls and under festival tents into a gyrating lather while not sacrificing their basic principle of brainy avant exploration. In addition Battles were frequently thought of in indie-supergroup terms, with drummer John Stanier hailing from Helmet and Tomahawk, guitar/keyboardist Ian Williams formerly working with Don Caballero and Storm & Stress, Braxton being a prolific free-agent solo artist and son of jazz giant Anthony Braxton and bass/guitarist Dave Konopka emerging from Boston math-rockers Lynx (he’s sort of the Ric Grech in this equation). Part of Battles appeal for me was how they connected as an expressive stew of creative equality from all four members, and MIRRORED really cemented this impression. Being active as a band since 2004 might seem at odds with my description of Battles as being in the throes of their growth stage, but they’d only released one full length album in that time-frame, and as great as MIRRORED was it registered to my ears like a harbinger for a coming mammoth breakthrough. I won’t deny that when Braxton elected to make his exit I was left with the lingering feeling that it might be a wise move for the rest of the group to simply call it a day. Silly me. The first evidence that my pessimistic forecast/assessment was in possible error came via the tidbit that their new LP would eschew a permanent replacement for Tyondai. Instead the band chose to engage with an impressive foursome of guest vocalists, namely Kompakt electronic dude Matias Aguayo, Blonde Redhead member Kazu Makino, elderly but relevant Brit techno-pop mainstay Gary Numan and the beautifully eccentric Boredom’s vocalist Yamantaka Eye. Admittedly this tactic came with its own sense of danger, for it easily could spell a sinking into unrewarding All-Star Party gestures for modern hipsters. I’ve yet to hear the entirety of GLOSS DROP (released this week), so it still might be just that. But based on the evidence from the brief but extremely satisfying ICE CREAM 12” that’s just dropped, it’s appearing increasingly likely Battles have successfully overcome the obstacles of continuing after Braxton. First, it’s nice to see them concoct a pre-LP teaser that avoids the inclusion of the LP’s more prominent guest contributors. “Ice Cream” instead features the addition of relative unknown Aguayo, and while I don’t disagree with some of the assessments I’ve read that describe it as “poppy”, I’m more inclined to emphasize how it tweaks their near constant aural themes of cyclical choppiness, abrupt dynamic shifts and the precise rhythmic engine that is John Stanier. Where MIRRORED’s motion felt at times like a cracked descendent of the street-rhythms blasting from a weighty urban boom box, “Ice Cream” is considerably more brittle or possibly European in orientation. Perhaps it’s the lack of bass, or maybe it’s the input of Aguayo, whose breathy voice exercises at the start and finish bring dance-period Kraftwerk to my mind (his straight ahead singing is harder to tag, thought it seems vaguely in consort with some of the post-post-punk that emanated from the late-‘80s UK). Asses will still undoubtedly shake to this track (maybe even mine under the right circumstances), but “Ice Cream” lacks the previous album’s odd funkiness. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I’m welcoming the difference. The flip side features an abstracted instrumental mess-around titled “Black Sundome” that lands securely between no big deal and not a bad thing, and ends with a non-vocal version of “Ice Cream” that’s nice to have on hand. The totality of this new EP is clearly in the tradition of those long-gone days when overpriced maxi-singles clogged the import racks, and this isn’t the first occasion where Battles (and their label Warp) have worked in this historical frame; MIRRORED’s “Tonto” was given a 12” that included remixes by Four Tet and The Field. This isn’t an empty or insignificant gesture. Battles are one of the only groups I can think of integrating rock heaviness with progressive dance and electronic elements who actually succeed in the endeavor. Most attempts frankly result in sonic miscarriage. The whole feel of the ICE CREAM 12” gives off a strong vibe that could place it snuggly in a bin with M.A.R.R.S.’s PUMP UP THE VOLUME, Pop Will Eat Itself’s LOVE MISSILE F1-11, Laibach’s LIFE IS LIFE and De La Soul’s PLUG TUNIN’. But the sound is thankfully non-retro, being very up to the minute. The true test for Battles will come with the overall quality of GLOSS DROP, but these three tracks represent a small but worthwhile achievement that stands on its own terms.
Japanese band Boris is an undoubted practitioner of heavy sound, but I think it’s a (non-grave) mistake to tag them as simply an eccentric stoner-rock act. For starters, the group predates the wave of stoner/doom bands that were making fitful rumblings at the start of the new millennium. While being sonic contemporaries of Seattle’s Earth and the San Jose’s Sleep, Boris worked in relative isolation from the later bands that largely came to define the genre, and were initially part of a different scene, that of international drone/noise/deep underground activity. In the early days, Boris was celebrated for their speaker-shredding qualities by fans of such non-stoner artists as Japan’s Ghost (with whom they’ve collaborated) and the New England duo Damon and Naomi (with whom they’ve toured), and when I first heard them I considered the band to be a more metallic offshoot of the heavy psychedelic rock that was being tirelessly documented by their country’s P.S.F. label (High Rise, Marble Sheep, White Heaven, Mainliner etc). Boris has also teamed up with such noise denizens as Merzbow and Keiji Haino, so in my estimation it feels more than a bit limiting to casually label them with the stoner-rock appellation. On the other hand, they certainly do bring concentrated doses of the slow-ooze heavy metal thundah that’s explicitly based upon the post-Black Sabbath reinventions of such ‘80s titans as St. Vitus and The Melvins (whose BULLHEAD album provided Boris with their name). Like those bands, Boris (along with Sleep and Earth for that matter) grew out of a punk scene that was basically unable to reconcile the massive density of their sound. And it’s surely fair to state Boris as a crucial influence on stoner/doom’s formidable geography and to cite them as fellow travelers with such exemplars of the genre as Sunn O))). Plus having a sizeable chunk of a vast discography released by the Southern Lord label can’t help but lend itself to categorization. But I must insist that Boris has always been too stylistically varied to be contained by one bag, particularly if it holds bongloads of righteous boo. Take the new album HEAVY ROCKS for example. Released concurrently with ATTENTION PLEASE, it forms one half of a considerable statement by a group that’s confidently lurched past year fifteen of active work, with this pair of records making it abundantly clear Boris is far beyond the tidy compartmentalization of genre pigeonholing. It’s notable that this is the second document from the band carrying the title HEAVY ROCKS; 2002’s version found them deep in the middle of heavy blooze/bastardized boogie territory that was unabashedly stoner in intent (from there Boris shifted into a roughly drone/ambient mid-period). The 2011 ROCKS is a much more varied beast, though it’s currently situated to take a back seat to the suitably titled ATTENTION PLEASE’s frankly unexpected jaunts into the assorted strains of often pretty and sometimes noisy femme-voiced pop experimentation from guitarist/vocalist Wata. I enjoy ATTENTION PLEASE quite a bit, but it feels, at least at this juncture, like a short if intriguing phase in their career. This might be why it’s was released simultaneously with HEAVY ROCKS, which is tangibly more in keeping with Boris’ evolving sensibility. Opening track “Riot Sugar” comes with the expected rocking grouchiness replete with the requisite howling guitars and rhythmic bombast, but it’s sweetened a bit with Wata’s vocals. Ian Astbury from The Cult announces his presence by wailing in the background, still fresh and frothy from last year’s collaboratory BXI EP. The next cut “Leak -Truth, yesnoyesnoyes” is a mixture of high-sheen mid-tempo rock and bursts of squalling guitar worthy of Mascis. Indeed, much of the LP (“Window Shopping”, “Tu, La La”) feels like an early ‘90s indie rock band with metallic inflection and slight quirks gone pro. It’s unsubtle but more than okay in the right dosage. “Galaxians” is a galloping metal bruiser, and “Jackson Head” takes that same hulking template and expands it into a band trying to approximate ZZ Top circa “Velcro Fly”. I know that sounds highly dubious. I mean, if someone painted that picture to me I’d be worried. But they make it work, particularly because it’s not overextended; swell ideas can turn toxic if fussed over for too long. On the other side of that coin, my top cuts from this 2LP are the quiet/loud indie-folk rockisms of the beautiful and lengthy “Missing Pieces” and the prolonged emotive hammering plod of “Aileron”, which basically means I like Boris best when they think large. HEAVY ROCKS is ultimately an odd row of ducks, but it shapes up rather well as a whole. They’ve been gradually hinting at more accessible material for a few years now, a trend traceable to 2008’s SMILE LP. This is not the place where new listeners should start (I’d say begin with ‘98’s AMPLIFIER WORSHIP, the record that put them on the global noise-rock map, and proceed from there), but along with ATTENTION PLEASE it shows a veteran band taking chances and seeking growth instead of falling back on retread. Now sixteen albums strong (not counting collabs and EPs) Boris has come a long way from the sludge-behemoth that is ABSOLUTEGO. No longer outsiders, they have landed smack in the midst of this young decade’s contemporary rock scene. It’s going to be interesting to follow their steps forward.