I wasn’t going to let a small case of burnout, exhaustion and illness to stop me getting to this gig – after all I’d waited some years to see the headliners. So on my own I went to a venue I’d never attended before.
Support act Thank You were colorful, energetic post rock that had a bit of a seventies vibe to it – in that it was full of wanky keyboard flourishes and drum solos. A fair few people headed to the bar as the set went on, and I must confess that I nearly joined them more than once. Yeah, there was the odd snatched bit of unintelligeable vocal, but to me this was generally not especially engaging – such immense self indulgence like this rarely is. And what was more frustrating? Parts of the set were enthralling, would keep me on tenterhooks for what was coming next…only to find it was another sodding solo.
And so, onto the headline band. I was a little in two minds as to what to expect from Battles, as it had been made clear in recent live show reports that since Tyondai Braxton had left the band, that it was all but an impossibility for the now-three-piece band to actually be able to play any of the old stuff. This was for a me a little disappointing – last album Mirrored was my album of the year 2007 and single Atlas my runner-up in track of the year 2007, and my fondness for the whole album still hasn’t dimmed yet, all this time since.
However the good news is that I’m really rather fond of new album Gloss Drop, too. I have to confess that since I picked it up on Monday, I’d probably only had the chance to listen to the whole album two or three times, but single Ice Cream has been on all-but-repeat on my iPod for a couple of months now.
Quite why they couldn’t play the old material became very clear indeed when the band took to the stage. Ian Williams in particular appears to juggle about five different instruments at points, while Dave Konopka is constantly switching guitars (and bass), frequently during songs, never mind between them. In the middle – centre-stage, actually – John Stanier’s drumming is awesome, and he hits the skins so hard that every beat is like a punch in the gut. Meaning that trying to fit in the missing elements for songs like Atlas simply wouldn’t work, without triggering loads of samples or playback.
And that doesn’t appear to be what this band are really about.
As let’s be honest here – despite their remarkable accessibility, Battles are at the core of it a musos band. Hugely talented and technical, they would have remained a (very) niche band were it not for the fact that they have this knack of writing songs that are a whole lot more interesting and catchy than any of their peers. Take for example the killer track of the new album, the aforementioned Ice Cream. A sunny, carnivalesque track that bounces all over the place, it was stretched out live with a lengthy, teasing intro before suddenly bursting into life – and like the other tracks on Gloss Drop that feature guest vocalists (all of those were played), Matias Aguayo was projected onto the small screens and his spanish (?) vocals were clearly audible – and cleverly enough, played with and looped by Ian Williams, helping to dispel the notion of it being a simple playback.
Sweetie & Shag
This was, by far, the song that got the most energetic reaction of the night, and perhaps that is understandable – it’s the song we’ve all known for the longest, while the rest of the album was still that bit unfamiliar. That didn’t mean that the rest of the set was bad, though – far from it, in fact. Opener Africastle wound up things nicely, while Sweetie & Shag‘s funky, shuffling, shoegazey pop tones was fantastic live, complete with the visual/vocal-accompaniment of a sampled Kazu Makino. In fact, it works better live, I think.
And this was the case with most of the album – particularly as with only nine songs played, it was stretched well beyond an hour for the set. Which allowed some intriguing experimentation, and a formidable demonstration of just how talented these musicians are, as they pulled apart some of the songs, and added extra sections all over the place just because they could. But crucially, they left the songs recognisable and still fun.
One surprising highlight, though, was the mechanical burst of My Machines, complete with the Gary Numan vocals – and his face staring out across the crowd impassively. On record it comes across as, well, a little cold and too, well, machine-tooled – but live it is a quite incredible snorting, hissing machine: underpinned as ever by John Stanier’s astonishing drumming, Ian and Dave were in perfect lockstep with him as the machine threatened to run out of control.
And there is the thing: Battles have an amazing ability to make it all sound like chaos, when in reality they know exactly what they are doing. An endlessly enthralling band, making music that by rights should be dull as ditchwater. Instead I’m struggling to think of better ways to spend a Wednesday night than being taken for a musical ride as awesome as this.