When Battles hit the scene 13 years ago, they didn’t sound like anything else around them. Their magnificent early EP series and debut album/gamechanger Mirrored drew from a wild hodgepodge of influences that made their Technicolor sugar rush of Don Caballero-esque math rock drumming, itchy fretwork and Tyondai Braxton’s difficult-to-decipher chipmunk-like vocals as much of a treat to listen to as it was to puzzle over. Then Braxton left the band, leaving the remaining members – drummer John Stanier, guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka, and guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams – to fill the Braxton-sized hole with a slew of guests vocalists like Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino, Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye, and oh yeah, Gary fucking Numan on their sophomore album, Gloss Drop. By the time they got to 2015’s La Di Da Di, it seemed they’d gotten comfortable enough to just go instrumental, dropping the vocalists entirely for their best post–Mirrored work.

With Juice B Crypts, the band’s fourth, Battles has begun to sound like a dying party that should probably end, but hasn’t – and the hosts are antsy about keeping the festivities going. Now down to just Stanier and Williams (Konopka left in May of ‘19), the duo returned to the drawing board they went back to with Gloss Drop and hauled in another truckload of guest stars to fill in the gaps – tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, and Jon Anderson of Yes (yes, Yes) filling in the old-head role Numan did. The problem is immediately obvious: while Gloss Drop felt like the work of a band confidently refreshing its own essence in the wake of losing such a characteristic part of their formula – Braxton’s charisma, compositions and motor-mouthed delivery – Juice sounds like the opposite: they sound unmoored and unconfident, desperate to prove themselves again when they needn’t bother.

If you’ve gotten used to the attention-deficit aesthetics of Battles, you could immediately think little has changed. They still have the same freewheeling approach to compositions, but on Juice the command of each song’s form they previously exhibited just isn’t there, as though they’ve lost the ability to control the swarms of noise they’ve always worked with. Take the title track for instance, which feels less like a band harnessing chaos than being subsumed by it. Then there’s “Sugar Foot,” perhaps the most unnecessary song in the band’s catalog, which crosses the line into being totally grating. And yet somehow, even with all of this, they’re still able to make bland songs, like the lethargic “Last Supper on Shasta,” which uses its noise (and Merrill Garbus, who we’ll get to in a moment) to mask the fact that it sounds like the band are just going through the motions.

The chaos also means that their talented guest roster feels not just wasted, but misapplied altogether. Ishmael Butler is buried too far in the mix of “IZM” to even seem worth it. Xenia Rubinos’ powerful voice clashes hideously with the frustrating “They Played It Twice.” And while Gloss Drop’s “My Machines” fit Numan like a glove (to say nothing of validating the band’s continued existence post-Braxton), you can totally skate past the presence of Jon Anderson while focusing on how borderline obnoxious “Sugar Foot” is, who makes Butler seem audible by comparison. They do strike gold with dance-punk pioneer Sal Principato of Liquid Liquid stepping in for “Titanium 2 Step” – not coincidentally one of the best songs on the album and the one that sounds like the closest thing to clarity the band get on Juice. But any goodwill they gain here is lost with the bold time-wasting of Garbus on the two-part finale “Last Supper on Shasta,” who is not only underutilized, but unnecessary, considering her unbridled exuberance for colorful compositions does nothing to save the songs.

When Braxton left Battles, it might have spelled certain death for the band – but though imperfect, Gloss Drop and La Di Da Di were proof that they could function without their star. But in losing another member, the band have lost the spark that made their first three albums feel impressive and vital. Juice B Crypts is the worst version of the band, one now somehow out of step with what made them so appealing in the first place. Even the glimpses of continued talent – “Titanium 2 Step,” the refreshingly restrained “Fort Greene Park” – are so surrounded by calamity that they aren’t even worth returning to. Hopefully they’ll return to some sort of clarity after this, but as it stands, you’d be forgiven for doing a French exit from Battles’ party after this.

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