Tuesday June 19, 2007
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.)
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