It takes a lot of vision, plenty of gall, a touch of arrogance and more than a little bit of chops to start an instrumental rock band. All of which would be limiting factors save for the Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperors of the world. But if you can get past the mainstream listener’s attention defecit and the inevitable allegations of pretentiousness, taking a couple steps down this road can earn a band the creative license to do almost whatever they want.
A good example is the first two minutes of “Africastle,” the opening track of Battles’ Gloss Drop, wherein next to nothing of commercial value happens. A radio DJ would likely cue this sucker up to the start of the stutter-step drum part that begins the first instrumental theme. But no one’s going to play “Africastle” so Battles earn two-minutes of gorgeous, patient introduction to the dense guitar-and-synthesizer “verse.” Similarly, when things get dark about two-thirds of the way in, no one expects the “bridge” to return to a pre-established theme, earning the band a surreal martial coda of chirping keyboard.
Despite what you’re thinking, Gloss Drop is immensely listenable, always delivering enough of that surface level melody to tug the ear deeper into its hidden folds and generally proceeding at a tempo that, if nothing else, renders the sonic complexity danceable. One of the band’s smartest moves was inviting a handful of guest vocalists to pepper the record with breaks in the orchestration. “Ice Cream (featuring Matias Aguayo)” is an unabashed summer jam, skating forward like a fractured Jane’s Addiction, while “My Machines” attempts to update Gary Numan’s transhuman electro rock with help from Numan himself, and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino cools off the antsy metallic keyboards on “Sweetie & Shag.”
Battles’ greatest strength, though, comes out on instrumental tracks like “Wall Street,” a thick web of interlocking micro-riffs that jitter like the Brownian motion of market prices without allowing a single instrument to assert hegemony. Words are clumsy instruments compared to what orchestration can achieve faced with themes this abstract and contentious.