Battles at NYU in April
by Michael D. Ayers
Tuesday, November 13
It’s been awhile since a band that largely composes music without vocals or stage gimmicks has broken out of New York. I tried to recall a few, but I could only come up with Medeski Martin and Wood, who were playing large theaters by the late 90’s. For this decade, there’s been a bit of a drought of pure instrumental acts that have emerged to find success nationally or internationally. Black Dice have remained in the margins and probably will continue to; Animal Collective have shown tendencies in the past that to me, owed a lot to free jazz experimentation, but they also rely heavy on words. And Grizzly Bear, although they do a lot of “oooh’ing” and “coo’ing” during long spells of spacey sound, also put stock in lyrics, as I’m told the song “Little Brother” speaks to people on that level.
Battles has changed this, or at least could be on the track to change this. When they played Bowery back in April, Mirrored hadn’t been released or leaked (to my knowledge), but even then, the definitive crowd pleaser was the rhythmic electro pounder, “Atlas.” This summer that song and video made the Internet rounds with all the usual suspects, making me suspect that this band was becoming more a product of “Web 2.0” hitmaking than anything else, which for some reason, seemed unfortunate. Achieving such notoriety so quickly with just playing a nearly seven-minute instrumental tune is something that probably couldn’t have happened in the decades before. Just ask Tortoise, a group that Battles reminds me of a lot. It took them a good ten years before they’d reach playing a 1200 person capacity venue. Battles has done this in roughly six months.
Okay, so last night wasn’t sold out; they might not be quite there yet, but still- they’ve managed to get a healthy amount of people out to hear music that doesn’t involve singing, robots on top of pyramids, or riding a wave of remix luck. Yes, Justice I’m looking at you.
What’s fun and exciting about Battles is that they’re impressive as musicians. Everyone always comments how the drummer John Stanier use to be in Helmet, and how guitarist / keyboardist /vocal sound effectist Tyondai Braxton’s dad is avant jazz guru Anthony Braxton. Much of the press this year frequently commented about Battles’ position as a “math rock” band, something that I guess works if you look at the standard Wikipedia entry for that sub-sub-genre. But Battles is much more than just a band that does some atypical style shifting as a deliberate ploy to be weird or different. On stage, more so than on record, they know what they’re doing and are drawing on a lot of musical forms.
Upfront, Battles are great at making chaos sound coherent. A lot of tunes last night such as “Tonto” and “Ddiamondd” sound really messy; both Ian Williams and Braxton like to bounce around, do weird stuff with keyboards (and in Braxton’s case, his voice) while playing their respective guitars. I guess the guitars make it the “rock” in the math rock equation, but Battles incorporates elements of jazz and funk within a modern electronic vibe; their comfortable improvising on stage, because again, they’re musicians. It also helps that Stanier is one bad-ass drummer. There’s a reason he sits in the forefront on stage; he anchors the group, allowing them to explore. He’s also very intense to watch, and captivates most of their audience for a good portion of their show.
When not watching Stanier, Battles makes people groove. Yes, groove. They bebop heads, contort bodies slightly, and do low-key fist pumps. It’s a very reserved groove, as if to suggest, I’m into this, but don’t want the geeks who are studying this band to stare.
When “Atlas” started up, there was much more grooving going on; those in some sort of Stanier induced coma snapped out of it briefly, and for the one moment of the evening, everyone seemed to have a unified feel of yeah, this does rule. Math rock, post rock, whatever rock Battles will be classified as, they’re doing something here that hasn’t been done in along time: resonate with people by not doing anything trendy such as sample mash-ups, funny costumes, or conceptual b.s., but instead play music that appeals to those who like technical prowess and improvisation, as well as those who like to move around a bit. This is very a good thing.