When Battles released their deranged debut album (Mirrored) in 2007, the New York virtuosos proved that — 20 years after Steve Albini broke brains with Big Black and Shellac — there was plenty of uncharted territory in math rock. That Battles have become the genre's new standard-bearers makes sense: The group features two of its pioneers in Don Caballero guitarist Ian Williams and Helmet drummer John Stanier. But it was singer/guitarist Tyondai Braxton (son of avant-garde jazz icon Anthony) who gave the band their voice, piling unintelligible vox-tweaked madness on top of the group's already maddening prog-rock sound.
During sessions for their second album, Braxton suddenly quit, citing exhaustion. His departure has allowed Williams, Stanier and guitarist Dave Konopka to tighten things up. Gloss Drop is the group's most focused and pleasurable collection yet. It's also (WTF?) straight-up poppy at moments, with loads of ear-worm guitar hooks and propulsive grooves. Call it treadmill music for the art-school set.
Gloss Drop kicks off with the hiccupy, six-minute cluster-bomb "Africastle." From there, the group digs into a 54-minute barrage of knotty prog, electrified bebop, demented calypso, and what-was-that industrial bangers. Yet it's all somehow unified by Stanier's consistently crushing beats and Konopka's mouse-squeak guitar effects. A few notable guests assume Braxton's role as vocalist — including new-wave icon Gary Numan on the jittery "My Machines" and Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino on the hip-swiveling "Sweetie & Shag." But in the hands of Battles, the added star power is mostly just another texture; another cool studio toy for them to manipulate.