In August, Battles headlined Field Day, a new festival. Their set was curtailed by a council curfew, and the sound system was panned. I hope some of those who left Victoria Park disappointed that day gave these math-rockers another chance; their show, when it goes well, is awesome.
Bassist Dave Konopka emerges first, putting his hands together as if in prayer, gesturing to the crowd and to the single ride cymbal sitting 7ft above the drumkit, wreathed in a cluster of spotlights like an object of worship. Konopka then opens proceedings by looping a bass riff full of feedback, before drummer John Stanier begins attacking the drums in a display of power and precision that never lets up. The first time he stretches to strike the cymbal overhead, the crowd lets out a roar of delight.
Guitarists Tyondai Braxton and Ian Williams have mastered the knack of shuffling the fingers of one hand across their fretboards while picking out keyboard melodies with the other. They twiddle away at knobs and dials between riffs like mad scientists. Braxton has the mad hair to match and, being the singer on the few tracks with vocal duties, he looks like he ought to be the front man. But it's Stanier who really dictates events. His kit is front and centre, and his bandmates defer to his rhythmic supremacy.
Like fellow New Yorkers The Rapture, Battles look more like Manhattan clubbers than a guitar band. Their music, impenetrable as it can seem, has the same crossover appeal. Their compositions are architectural. "Atlas" is built painstakingly, monumentally. Shades of nu-metal haunt the fills, contrasting with Braxton's Disney-fied, helium-balloon holler. Like some avant-garde jazz ensemble, walls of noise apparently stacked at random can suddenly coalesce into a focused, formal structure.
"Race In", the opening track from their album Mirrored, is a case in point. Its time signature changes from a skittish, jazz-inflected shuffle into a rocking guitar march, and back again. "Tonto", a forthcoming single, seems to be noodling along until the layers of competing guitar loops abruptly unite to become a chugging, radio-friendly riff.
Each band member builds melody lines, one on top of the other, then moves on, later breaking them down with the same razor-sharp precision.
Battles' brand of robotic rock is smart and addictive. If their mission is to bring some more brains to the mainstream, then they deserve to succeed.
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