Monday, January 30, 2012

Battles - Live @ The Forum (Big Day Out Sideshow), Jan 28

The following is a review originally published and syndicated for Hitz 247, reproduced in its entirety here.
The best way to describe the colossal rhythmic power of a Battles concert is to watch the sea of heads. There’s people bobbing and dancing, others prefer metronomic nodding, while some go for straight-up headbanging. The clinch? It’s all at once and it all makes sense.

Touring as part of the Big Day Out, Battles’ strength as a live unit makes them a reliable festival act, but it’s at sideshows like these that their titanic experimental rock is allowed to unfurl. Flanked by a wall of amps, two glowing video panels mimic a burning sunrise as the trio lope onstage and begin structuring the opening of Africastle. It soon crashes to life, built on visceral syncopations and mean polyrhythms, their instrumental collision of computer precision and processing with a propensity for shattering grooves is both thrilling and occasionally baffling. You often wonder what sounds are being made and how they’re making them, but they’re definitely playing them. Loud.

Since the departure of Tyondai Braxton reduced them to a trio, it’s bolstered them deeper into their muscular grooves and complex textures, thrown head-long into a colossal racket for just three men. Doubts that their dynamic would lack something in his absence are unfounded. If anything, the strength of their latest album Gloss Drop, finds multi-intsrumentalist Dave Konopka and guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams juggling a surfeit of loops, synths, strings, pads and general noise-making into thick, addictive riffs.

Their whole basis is unconventional, there’s guitars but they’re often pummelled or struck rather than strummed, there’s singing too – but it’s secondary. Literally displaced by virtual performances from a roster of guest vocalists, their parts pre-recorded and displayed on the twin screens throughout.

Kazu Makino (of Blonde Redhead fame) features on Sweetie & Shag, while Williams, guitar slung over his back, makes a slow, eccentric dance out of his flashy piano glisses and crooked flourishes; his arms stretched – wing-like - across his bank of keys. They even have the blessing of the electro-pop godfather, Gary Numan, who guests on My Machines’ relentless assault. Looking gothically dapper (as only he can), glaring down from the dual digital screens.

It’s a visual trick that lends some visual dynamism for the easily distracted, there’s a focus that Battles’ complexity demands after all; though it has to be said that there is a reason drummer John Stanier is placed front and centre.

Worth the price of admission alone, his knuckle-white tightness and ferocious hammering of his surprisingly stripped-back kit begs the question: which is stronger - Stanier’s wrists? Or his drums for absorbing such punishment? Unconventionally, he has his crash cymbal set impossibly high over his head. The effect when he reaches overhead for it – such as on Wall Street’s fidgeting groove is a showy display with the vigour of a fist-pump. He’s a constant reminder that for all their experimental noodling, there is a flesh-and-blood performance happening. Drenched from pounding, his plain blue shirt slick with sweat, he is the powerful machine that keeps their rhythmic centre ticking.

Motorising Atas for instance, though it loses some of its organic vitality in having its warped vocals sampled, but none of its burly authority. Better associated with the Greek god who heaved the9 world on his shoulders than a book of maps. The brooding digital menace of Tonto stems the coursing tide a little, even at the expense of its titanic ending, which is curiously scuppered for a segue into Ice Cream, with its pounding set-up synced with images of the titular dessert. Unexpectedly, its distinctive see-sawing figure (that evokes an ice-cream truck, natch) is in fact created live with a heavily processed guitar. It also includes an extended breakdown where Matias Aguayo’s vocal samples are chopped up out of a sexy yelp into fragmented syllables and noises. Further proving that their experimentalism comes alive in performance, their playing made an ongoing process as they cut up and change on the fly.

Even a technical hiccup involving Stanier’s drum pedal during the jagged peaks of Futura can’t derail their pace. It’s soon fixed and professionally covered with some looping pads. Unfortunately, performing Sundome as an encore without him is a bit of a bore. Against imaginative faux-chanting, a blend of yawning synths and brighty, choppy keyboards slowly shape themselves – but it lacks life. After a fairly dull six minutes of texture-building, Stanier eventually returns for what is a relatively restrained beat. It’s a stale climax to an otherwise great show.

If anything it shows the peak of their abilities is in the space of frenzied delirium where the three meet, a buffet of eclectic sounds cutting across tactile beats you can dance, nod or headbang to.

Latest tracks by BATTLES

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