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When Battles came out with Mirrored in 2007, they blew critics away with the man-machine-like precision of their music, a prog-meets-metal-meets-electro-meets-jazz-meets-funk soundscape that melded analog precision with a digital sound. Watching the band live was beautiful—you didn't know what sounds were produced mechanically and what was a product of blood and sweat. And their technical proficiency didn't get in the way of fun: Their songs were still as catchy and danceable as any Katy Perry tune.
The band toured extensively for three years, and audiences waited expectantly for what Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, John Stanier and Tyondai Braxton would come up with next.
Alas, this year's curve ball wasn't just that they were releasing their sophomore set, Gloss Drop, but that Braxton, the closest thing to a singer the band had, was quitting. While there was no question that Williams, Konopka and Stanier were going to stick together and pursue the prog, the larger question was: What were they going to sound like?
Fans and critics shouldn't have worried. Gloss Drop, while more uneven than Mirrored, shines. It's a testament to how great Battles are, considering they were making the album while losing a member.
The story, as Konopka tells it: "Ty came into the studio with us, but for some reason, it wasn't gelling. We had a body of work, but none of us were communicating at all," he says. "I don't think he was interested in being in a band with us anymore. . . . He had other motives; he was more interested in pursuing his own career, and he didn't want to tour. And we did want to tour—it's the only way [a band] can make money."
Braxton's departure "was a really healthy kick in the ass for us," Konopka says. "It's kind of like when you have a table with four legs, and one of them is wobbly, and when you remove that leg, it becomes a tripod and will never be wobbly!"
And so the rest of Battles restructured the album. "The timing of it all sucked," Konopka says. "I wish he didn't come into the studio with us because the three of us had to go back and take his parts off the table because they were no longer applicable."
Contrary to popular misconception, Gloss Drop was not complete when Braxton left. "It looked like someone blew up a shed on top of a lake and there were all these floating pieces," Konopka relates. "And it was just us taking those pieces and trying to build something new."
That something new involved not just learning how to play as a trio, but also trying to figure out how to present certain songs.
While getting a new singer was out of the question ("I didn't want someone on this permanent document that I invested so much of my creative energy in," Konopka says), the solution—introducing guest singers such as Gary Numan and Blonde Redhead singer Kazu Makino—allowed them to create a happy compromise.
It also granted Battles the ability to up the ante on their visual show; live, these songs have guest singers projected onstage, as if part of the band at that moment. In that sense, they still have that futuristic, man-machine thing going. In short? They're still Battles.
This article appeared in print as "Battles, Scarred: After losing a member, the neo-math rock trio are stronger than ever."