Last Night (Approximately): Battles at The Troubadour

Battles, The Troubadour, June 30, 2007
Better Than: Any other show happening in Southern California on this night.

That is the future of music,” freelance photographer Choncey Langford declared after Battles’ performance Saturday night. It’s a hard statement to refute, so I’m not going to try—mainly because I agree with it.

If you read my review of the Brooklyn-based quartet’s latest album, Mirrored, you’ll know my position. I think they’re poised to be a paradigm-shifting band. That a unit as uncompromising as Battles sold out the Troubadour suggests that every so often, challenging music can break through the morass of corporate Cheez Whiz® and move significant numbers of people.

I expected the Battles crowd to be composed mainly of geeky male math-rock aficionados, but there were plenty of young female fans in the house, and they were dancing up a storm, to boot. Here was a media-hyped group who not only deserved the buzz, but who was also garnering large adoring crowds. I expect my alarm to go off and wake from this pleasant dream any minute now. . . .

Battles consist of four genially studious men in button-down shirts and short sensible hair, save for guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton’s unruly afro. The members’ unassuming presence belies an instrumental extravagance that’s often breathtaking. Guitarist Ian Williams multitasks on VST keyboards, plug-ins and Logic Pro audio software, as does Braxton. Dave Konopka plays bass and guitar while John Stanier commands his drum kit like a drill sergeant. His cymbal is three feet higher than is typical, seemingly because dude likes to work harder than necessary to punish it. The extra effort pays off.

Beginning with a mournful, proggy bass fanfare by Konopka, the band gradually shifts into a radiantly crunching guitar attack, propelled by Stanier’s heavyweight-champ, galloping beats. This leads into Braxton gutturally spitting into his mic, and then looping the sound into a rhythm, which Battles then use as the next song’s foundation. The piece is cantankerous and undulating, a strange species of danceable prog rock accentuated by OCD guitar clangor and, later, a bark-being-stripped-off-trees corrosiveness. The audience went wild for it.

Mirrored’s first single, “Atlas”—which builds to an unlikely rave-anthemic climax—and several other Battles tracks initially give the impression they’re mad automatons running amok. Adding to this otherworldly effect are Braxton’s vocals, which consist of pitched-up glossolalia that confounds sing-alongs. But Battles are actually more like an advanced race of sonic geometrists, conceiving impossibly intricate aural angles and trajectories at breakneck velocity and convulsive power. At times, Battles seemed to be composing thrilling car-chase themes for MENSA members, insanely rapid gamelan pieces for fans of ’80s King Crimson, or avant-garde Looney Toons for those who find Carl Stalling’s work to be too sedate.

Overall, this gig proved that what is ostensibly a rock band can incorporate digital technology and still be fluid/dynamic with it, can bring the noise and inspire ass-shaking, can be fun (if weirdly so) and intellectually stimulating.

The future of music? Let’s hope so.

Reporter's Notebook
Personal Bias: I’ve loved everything Tyondai Braxton’s done on record and in concert, and I’m a big fan of Don Caballero and Storm N Stress (both of whom Ian Williams played in).
Random detail: Stanier’s kit was mic’d so loud that each tom-tom and kick-drum hit severely wounded that part of my brain where memories are stored. I’m still trying to decide if this is a good or bad thing.

Photos by: Choncey Langford

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