If the past is another country then the future is another planet and Battles arrived in Berlin from Venus, via NYC, determined to inflict their spazzed out math-rock on an enthusiastic, if occasionally perplexed, audience.
Battles are something of a nerd rock supergroup comprising drummer John Stanier (formerly of Helmet and currently also playing with Tomahawk), guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams (Don Caballero), David Konopka, on bass and guitar (Lynx) and Tyondai Braxton, avant-garde solo artist and son of jazzer Anthony Braxton, on vocals, guitar and keyboard. Their second album, Mirrored, is available now on Warp.
Given the pedigree of the musicians involved and their undoubted virtuosity it is perhaps unsurprising that the critical buzz and hype surrounding the band is considerable, Atlas was recently voted best single of the week by NME. Unfortunately virtuosity can make for an uncomfortable listening experience, learn a thousand chords, every scale, key, time signature and mode known to man and form a band. A band which can and does play all of these things (and some more that no-one has thought of yet) simultaneously, is the stuff of which this reviewers nightmares are made.
For the last few months the department of quantum mathematics at MIT has been dosing chimpanzees with Tartrazine and issuing them with Fischer Price laptops in the hope that they will eventually produce a definitive critical appraisal of the music of – Battles. Around 2040 the chimps will finally complete their report. Written in a combination of C+, Perl and several other computer languages so complex that they are only understood by a single savant whose already fragile grip on reality will be shattered by its fractal beauty.
Believing that the name of God has indeed been revealed to him he retreats Unibomber style to the woods and concocts a fiendish terror plot which results in the destruction of all music other than a handful of John Hammond records. Playing them backwards at 78rpm (which is frankly the only appropriate way to listen to John Hammond) Battles discover how to travel in time which brings us back, via a somewhat over extended metaphor, to Maria and Braxton and Stanier’s excellent adventure.
Perched at the lip of the stage behind a shiny red drum kit with a preposterously tall cymbal, Stanier hammers out polyrythms while the rest of the group pull nasty jazz faces as they stab at their synths with one hand producing trills and trails of remaindered 80’s riffs. Because they can, Williams and Braxton play their guitars at the same time. The resulting music is strangely reminiscent of another one-handed activity.
Each number of their predominately instrumental set, heavily processed vocals courtesy of Braxton consist of yelps and squeals and nonsensical but infectious nursery rhyme melodies, seems to begin with the band playing eight different tunes at the same time (no mean feat since there are only four of them). Never trust a band that wears their guitars this high!
Repetitive figures are deconstructed and shared amongst the group. What apparently starts as Terry Riley’s In C (albeit as covered by Polysics with Papa Smurf on guest vocal) collapses through various bit-crushers, effects loops and other assorted gizmos into the cacophonic electronic equivalent of Peter Brötzman’s notoriously unlistenable Machine Gun before coalescing again into a, more or less, coherent beat.
Three numbers in the intensely irritating Atlas provides some relief by virtue of its familiarity (in all fairness to Battles for a bunch of jazz-wankers they certainly know how to construct an indelible hook) but whilst their sound is undeniably innovative and unique this remains clever music by and for clever people and unfortunately the physics graduates which comprise their core audience are too awestruck to dance.