Battles: Live in Bristol
he Trinity is a quaint venue, a church turned into a community centre; outside there is an allotment; inside posters advertise yoga classes alongside gigs by Animal Collective. The support band tonight are a three-piece playing by-the-numbers post/math-rock; start quiet, get loud, shout something obliquely profound over the top, wear your hair and beard long. My Bloody Valentine had way more melody, Mogwai way more gravitas, Godspeed way more people. The climaxes are unearned noise. The drummer looks like Matt Tong from Bloc Party’s younger, geekier brother.
John Stanier on the other hand looks like he ought to be a marine. Tyondai Braxton looks like a young Rudd Gullit. Dave Konopka looks like a former child star (not anyone in particular, just that kind of generic ‘former child star’ look). Ian Williams just looks like a lunatic.
Battles start when Konopka ambles onstage; he picks up a bass guitar, makes it moan, samples, loops and corrupts the moan, sending it higher and higher, before the rest of the band walk on, raise instruments, and surge into a piece of music, almost recognisable as “Race: Out” from Mirrored but altered, assembled before our eyes on an array of instruments and flashing boxes with the kind of frenetic pace and precision that doesn’t exist in the real world.
If you’ve seen Battles live then you’ll know what I mean when I say that the ludicrously high cymbal is reached for and crashed; guitar strings are tapped with the left hand while the right hand plays keyboards; riffs are played, sampled, fucked-up, played again, sampled, fucked-up, played again, sampled, fucked-up, played again, sampled, done properly now, looped, warped, layered and built to crescendo. “Race: In” gets drawn-out because, seemingly, Williams can’t nail the riff to loop it. “Leyendecker” is deranged and disorienting.
That there are only four people onstage making this noise is almost incomprehensible. That you can follow the maelstrom of music is head spinning. That sometimes Battles just straight-out fucking ROCK is… It’s like I imagine Miles must have been like live in his electric period. “Atlas” predictably goes off. Six months after first contact and I still don’t know what it is. Rock? Techno? Jazz? Noise? Disco? Glam? I don’t understand how it does what it does. It moves the crowd, a couple of hundred of us, almost like rave. Those vocals, mangled, imploring, alien. The melange of riffs. The deconstruction. The beat! Stanier hits drums harder than I have ever heard anyone hit drums before.
Three nervously intoxicated stage divers anachronistically attempt to become the centre of attention for a second or 90 each; Konopka smiles wryly as one attempts to robot-dance before hurling himself atop the crowd. Braxton closes his eyes and waves his free arm as his other holds a microphone that he whoops and wails into, some psychedelic disco take on a Darth Vader voice-changer. Stanier turns his grey shirt black with perspiration. Williams blows gum bubbles and looks wild-eyed. They’re not “cool” in a traditional way; guitars are worn high because these are real musicians, and everyone but Stanier looks camp, awkward and deranged. Stanier just looks powerful and deranged.
Battles are classicism meets postmodernism. Exquisite technique run through a limitless and classless cultural horizon. The most spectacular thing you’ll ever hear? Sometimes just a noise, if you were to walk in halfway through. There from the start, involved in the context; mind-boggling. They mix more mathematical material from the early EPs with the alien-hook-laden missiles from Mirrored; “Tras” and “SZ2 (Part2)” sit comfortably with “Tij” and “Tonto,” because everything ebbs and flows into everything else; Tyondai makes a little between song banter at one point, but really tonight’s about four guys playing music and everyone else being flabbergasted.
“They’re essentially doing the same kind of thing as Sigur Ros,” my girlfriend overhears someone say towards the end of Battles’ set. That person is a fucking idiot. But that’s the conundrum; how on earth do you describe Battles to someone who hasn’t heard them; or even someone who has? “This robotic jazz thing that rocks hard”? How do you catalogue it mentally? When and where is this music for listening to? On your commute? In the bath? At the disco?
I don’t know if Mirrored is my favourite or the best record from 2007, but it feels like… one of the most important, if saying that in 2007 doesn’t seem strange. It feels revolutionary rather than reactionary. Seeing it or part of it and other parts of other things done live is revelatory. Battles are a phenomenon.