Ian Williams of Battles. Photo: Madelyn Boudreaux
When a crazy co-worker known for his bad music told me that Battles were coming to Urban Lounge and I just had to go, I braced myself for an evening of ear bleeding. Things weren’t looking up as we stood waiting (…and waiting) for the doors to open at the promised time of 9 PM. A little after 10, the doors finally opened. Never having an easy time of it, I was unsurprised to find my name not on the press list. Luckily, the door guy decided that I looked like someone covering a show for SLUG—was it the notebook and handful of pens, the massive camera bag, or did I just look like a dickhead?—and finally waved me in. Thank you, door guy. (Note: no one else better try this.)
The crowd—a mish-mash of casual hipsters, post-punk arty types, the requisite old drunk guy, and, notably, NO ONE I KNEW (other than my crazy co-worker, whom I’ll call CC, and another person from work who had also been “required” to be there by CC)—milled around amiably. I checked out the stage, nearly bursting with equipment. CC waxed nostalgic and prophetic about the uses of all of these different pieces of equipment and I wondered where the band would fit.
Opening act Birthquake! had set up in front of the stage—apparently an improvement over the last show where, according to CC, Battles had needed to recreate their entire enormous setup after the openers played, while the crowd looked on. We didn’t have to wait long before Birthquake! launched into their 10-or-so song set (plus or minus the sound-check overture which is always my favorite song by any opening band).
Things were still not looking up. Birthquake! is a good, solid band, if you like that artsy jam band sound. I don’t. The trio quickly ripped through their set of drum-based tunes that married complicated and very full drum lines with simple, sing-song melodies that sounded like they were lifted from Appalachian nursery songs. CC stole my notebook to declare in writing that the sound was “like overcooked noodles… those mushy ones in soup cans,” but the crowd was perfectly happy eating up those noodles and demanding more. Finally, admonishing us to “be excellent to each other,” Birthquake! left the stage. Party on, duuude.
And we stood around for what seemed like half of forever, and I looked for the best place to take photos (hint: not where I ended up standing), Battles walked quietly on stage. There was no “How ya doin’, Utah?” blather. These guys were all business. Ian Williams (Don Caballero, Storm & Stress), started banging on his keyboards, Dave Konopka (Lynx) tackled his guitar very seriously, and John Stanier (Tomahawk, Helmet) took to his drums at center stage like a king taking his throne.
Inwardly, I was sure this was going to kill me—but it didn’t. Things were actually starting to look up!
Launching into “Africastle,” the band instantly surprised me. The sound—complicated but appealing, electronic yet warm and strangely organic, both serious and fun at the same time —was not what I expected. It quickly dawned on me (nudged by CC’s explanations about their process) that, like a more rockin’ Underworld, Battles don’t merely perform their studio songs, but recreate the songs in a live setting, sometimes using different equipment and techniques. A performance is a new journey into a landscape previous explored sometime in the past, but now seismically changed.
While the crowd surged and bounced and shouted, Battles delivered a solid and fascinating mixture of electro-jam and arty experimentalism, like an organic Daft Punk minus the helmets. The music drew from widely varied sounds and influences. I heard Cuban rhythms, reggae and ska licks, Philip Glass minimalism, James Bond heroism and early Oingo Boingo excitability. A cast of virtual singers, including Gary Numan, Kazu Makino and Yamantaka Eye, appeared on three large screens behind the band to provide vocals, allowing for an array of sounds. These screens, alternating between the sampled vocalists and weird images, provided visual interest.
Not that the band members aren’t interesting to watch, themselves.
Williams gyrated for the entire set as he seemed to quite literally battle his equipment—at least one thing wasn’t working and he kept tweaking wires and pointing at the sound guy and shrugging—as well as the music (re)creation process itself. Moving in his tiny space, he banged on two keyboards, flipped around his guitar to pick it, kicked a pedal that was almost out of reach, and tapped on two different laptops, all without knocking over his beers. On “Dominican Fade,” he even added some cowbell.
Stanier, on his percussive throne, seemed to referee the whole thing, keeping the other two in check with his beats, bells, and characteristic almost-out-of-reach ride cymbal that he has to stretch waaaay up to hit. Allegedly, he thinks the cymbal is overused so he puts it where it’s hard to get at.
On the far side of the stage, Konopka mostly grinned and played, played and grinned (except when I took a photo of him). He really likes to play.
When the whole thing finally got too hot and sticky for my tastes, I climbed over the enraptured crowd and found my seat, where I fanned myself with my life-saving notebook while I listened and occasionally stood up to watch the band and their very happy audience as they created and performed five other songs from their new album, and an encore featuring the beautifully orchestral epic “Sundomes.” While still not exactly my cup of tea, Battles was a pleasant surprise for me—but please don’t tell CC. I fully intend to whine at him for at least the next week.
The band’s latest release, Gloss Drop, was released this past June. Their tour continues through November in the US and Europe, with one stop in Japan. Find them online at bttls.com.