The news of Dave Konopka departing Battles before the release of their fourth record would have seemed like déjà vu for fans. Much like the loss of Tyondai Braxton following their groundbreaking debut Mirrored (2007), the bassist’s recent exit may have soured the group’s latest release, Juice B Crypts. Thankfully, the condensed core duo of guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams and drummer John Stainer reflects the concise collection of energised experimental pop and absurdist eccentricity that made the band so unique in the first place.
By being among the first to artificially enhance their technically proficient experimental rock, the New York natives garnered critical acclaim for their 2007 debut. Intricate compositions of maximalist math-rock utilised cyclical repetition thematically and musically. After key vocalist Tyondai Braxton parted ways from the outfit due to a reluctance to tour, 2011’s house-influenced Gloss Drop used feature artists like Gary Numan to humanise their zig-zagging explorations through time signatures. Following the relatively dry ambient aesthetic of 2015’s La Di Da Di, Juice B Crypts sees a return to form and features. The band’s shortest record to date adds psychedelic funk to their electrified pop punches.
Adrenaline-fuelled “Ambulance” opens with a tri-tonal curtain call, morphing through a teaser of synth sounds to come. A revolving sub-bass sequence resolves before live drums add an up-tempo energy. There’s an artistic funk to the isolated lute-like breakdowns emphasising a mainstay of how Battles’ music works not only as a result of the sum of its parts but because of the substance of each element.
“A Loop So Nice…” follows up with more of an alt-RnB style via its metallic synth arpeggiations. Bass slinks in the background, never persisting in presence, instead allowing space for the primary loop. The arrangement then doubles as the foreground fills with kaleidoscopic textures. “They Played It Twice”, announces itself with striking immediacy amid the potent pipes of Xenia Rubinos. Beneath the wash of synths lie an inherently intimate melody that makes for a theatrical introduction before diving headfirst into an alternate passage of experimental house. Another pivot in style presents the vocal hook with dubstep builds and breakneck drumming, offering a remix of the track itself.
A forest of blended vocals from Yes vocalist Jon Anderson and Prarie WWWW intro “Sugar Foot” over a single synth loop and hi-hat. Lead synth bends help levitate melodies over driving bass and building percussive rhythms until an Oh Sees-style descent into a breakneck psychedelic jam surprises. Fitfully frenetic instrumentation juxtaposes against soaring serene vocals as the band move through three variations of psychedelia that offer a different shade of fruitful energy, each sounding like they’re simply having fun.
“Fort Greene Park” is a producer’s dream, opening with a single synth loop that moves among octaves before morphing into a two-tone arpeggiation made to make Boards of Canada green. Delayed fuzzy guitar offers an ascending hook until a cascade of crashes announce the primary passage interpreted by lead synth and live drums. The reintroduction of guitar and bass presents a satisfying collage of new-wave art rock amped up by synth frequency inflections.
Anthemic drums accompany the funkadelic synth on “Titanium 2 Step”. Perfectly suited to the stylised cries of Sal Principato, the song thrives in its erupting energy, casting reason aside for a burst of jazz-funk with contemporary instrumentation. However, this funk indulgence dwarfs “Hiro 3″’s absurdist interlude of keys and obtuse sounds, making it feel unnecessary and detached.
“Izm” intros with an accelerating plucked sample that creates an overarching lo-fi RnB soundscape for Shabazz Palaces to rap with. Live drumming once again acts as an organic heartbeat with shades of dubstep imbued in reverses and maxed gains of electronic elements. It’s another example of Battles indulging in grooves and hooks they may otherwise have avoided in an earlier state.
The title track is an industrial exploration of abrasive drumming and VCO-sounding synths. The sound design of looped melodies manipulated with attenuated cut-offs and gated compression that contribute to the overarching rhythm where it would otherwise be lost in the swell of sound is something special. Each eclectic element is afforded time in the spotlight until the jazzy conclusion compounds into a convoluted closing.
A two-part feature from Tune-Yards closes the record. “Last Supper On Shasta Pt. 1” is an accelerating fusion of drums and synth that resolves into a downtempo dance. Unmistakable vocal stylings from Merrill Garbus feel instantly at home among a grunting bassline groove and amalgam of electronics. “Last Supper On Shasta Pt. 2” sees a cyclical arpeggiation that pounds with fat bass and a danceably disorienting percussive rhythm. High-resonance tones and blistering beats enforce an industrial evolution with a wash of sounds and clipped samples before pure piano reverts to a classical simplicity. Playing the tri-tone passage of the opening track, Battles come full circle to finish in minimalist fashion.
For an album based on their hometown city that sits at the centre of their universe, Battles have done an exceptional job of capturing the energy and eclectic nature of New York. Playing with polarising passages and conceivably separate sounds has turned out an entertaining listen, whose intricacies reveal themselves with further listens. Adding RnB to their alternative take on funk grooves is a welcome one too. Though smaller in size, there’s no damage done to the quality compositions Battles create, seemingly finding fun more frequently this time around.
Juice B Crypts is released Friday 18th October via Warp Records.