Tuesday June 19, 2007

The Battles

Battles performing at Studio A

So, the Battles show at Studio A last night was, surprisingly to most, packed. Also: the Battles’ ethereal, otherworldly on-record sound becomes something quite different live. Pitchfork’s observations notwithstanding, when you take a laptop-assisted rock band, and remove the post-production laptop aspect, you’re mostly left with a band jamming along to, and with, loops. E.g.: Guy plays a riff on a bass, which is recorded into a loop device. He continues playing, layering the sound. Two guitar players follow suite. Uber-heavy real drums come in. Mix-n-match to fade.

Or so it would be if Battles weren’t four exemplary musicians. But they are, and by throwing three different versions of guitar/laptop-based multi-instrumentalism into a pot with an absolute beast of a drummer, they’ve arrived at something special. I don’t know that it’s a finished product yet, but they’re on to something — or, on their way to something (or, at least, pointing the way to something).

Oh, about that drummer. John Stanier used to play for Helmet. I don’t know about you, but the chance to hear him take an “arty” turn was one of the thing that got me off my ass and down to the show. Shure enough, his kit is minimalist (save a singly showy-high cymbal) and front-and-center on the stage (“He’s a real showman,” said Cohen). It’s tough for a drummer to interact with loops, but you’d never know it watching Stanier — he’s as natural as he is heavy. Another thing — one thing he does not make it look is effortless. Three songs into the set and there wasn’t a dry stitch in his shirt. He nails everything perfectly, but the Sisyphean effort he’s putting in is inescapable. It would be forgivable — hell, it might be musically advisable — for him to ease off on the attack a bit here and there. But he is either unable or unwilling — alternating strictly between full-on and full-off.

So, there I am about half way through the show, and something’s nagging me: this music is reminding me very strongly of something that the record didn’t. Then it hit me: The Feelies! The Battles are The Feelies + laptops. It’s all there — the angular guitar interplay, the fronting of strong and unusual rhythms, and the barely-there vocals. (It appears that The Feelies’ seminal Crazy Rhythms is out of print, but I’d encourage Battles fans to seek it out, um, “by any means necessary.”)

In the meantime, I note how moving music can be when it is this reduced to formal qualities. Like Helmet, the Battles’ sound is mostly devoid of emotion (well, there is a sort of glee to it), but it’s somehow infectious. It’s strange how potent cheap music is, but it’s even stranger how fun really cerebral music can be.

Finally, yes: Studio A deserves credit for bringing down bands like this. The probably wouldn’t have been any other place that’d have hosted them. (And believe it or not there was even some sporadic dancing.)


comments powered by Disqus
  1. jps    Tue Jun 19, 10:41 AM #  

    So mouse on mars – dancing = battles?

    I can dig that.

  2. music geek    Tue Jun 19, 01:08 PM #  

    I agree that the show was awesome and I’m so glad the crowd was into it. Studio A…gets an A.

    Just a few other points…
    I can kind of hear where you get the Feelies reference (if any connection it would be with the “The Good Earth” album) …but I have to disagree that they sound like the Feelies with Laptops. Feelies were a modern rock band from the 80’s with hints of psychedelia and experimentation. Battles is a different animal. You forget to mention that Ian Williams from Don Caballero is one of the main guys in this band. Don Caballero was one of the leaders of the Post Rock/Math Rock movement of the early 90’s (a year before Tortoise and four years before Trans Am). The have more of a connection to prog rock and kraut rock than they do with the Feelies. It is more of an updated version of those genres…with an IDM/electronic twist (cut up and distorted loops)….
    A better comparison would be Tortoise with Balls! The feelies is not a bad reference, definitely a band that deserves more recognition.

    Another point, Helmet… (Especially the first two releases Strap It On and Born Annoying) always had more of an artful quality than its contemporaries. They were influenced mostly by post punk bands like Killing Joke, and it was not until a major label picked them up that they simplified their sound to make them more marketable during the days of Nirvana and Soundgarden . They were also one of the first bands to be dubbed post-hardcore. John Stanier is a beast, and his attack on the drums should not be held back. It’s that kind of raw power that gives them an edge compared to other post-rock acts.

  3. cohen    Tue Jun 19, 06:03 PM #  

    i agree,,, a worth while show…not mindblowing or anything,,, but worth the time,,, great to see such a large crowd…at a show in the MIA

  4. alesh    Tue Jun 19, 09:11 PM #  

    Thanks, MG.

    I understand that the Battles aren’t directly (or maybe even indirectly) influenced by the Feelies, but during the show (and thinking specifically of “Crazy Rhythms”) the similarity seemed inescapable, though I suppose your millage may vary. The biggest difference would be in energy level, but in that sense it’s unfair to compare a live show and a 25+ year old record (and the similarity is much less obvious to the Battles’ record).

    I didn’t forget the stuff about Ian Williams’s past — I’m just not familiar with that stuff! One day I’ll look into it, because I like Tortoise well enough. But re-consider the similarities between Feelies and Battles w/r/t the relationship between the beats and the guitars, the backgrounding of the vocals, and the machine-like quality of the playing (see also talking heads). I dunno, but when I made the connection I found it pretty satisfying, and the possibility (however unlikely) that the Battles chose their name in subtle homage to the Feelies (like Led Zep/Def Lep) is tantalizing.

    I’m not normally big on the “raw power” approach to music, and “Meantime” was one of the major exceptions for me around that time (also, btw, Ministry/Psalm 69 and NIN/broken). I’ve never been interested in hearing anything else by Helmet. I also note that one of the more musically satisfying moments in the show was the encore, when Stanier’s role was quite diminished. Also: on the album, his beats are a lot softer relative to everything else then they were live (not knocking the mix, which was perfect for a club setting). Stanier is a beast, but I really loved seeing that he’s not immortal — after the first couple of songs, he looked tired, was drenched in sweat, and generally looked like what he was doing required massive willpower.

    Cohen~ Lightningbolt. (I am indebted to Cohen for making me mosh.)