The right forum for Battles

Battles — Kentish Town Forum — 21st November 2011

All good live music contains within it an element of remixing: if it didn’t, I may as well have stayed at home and listened to the album on a pair of good headphones. The art of performance requires a degree of spontaneity; however, the more complex the music, the harder it is to survive without some grid to which to adhere. And so it is that Battles, reduced to a trio, not only persevere with their most multi-faceted compositions but actually carve them into something altered, goofy yet utterly compelling.

Taking the stage of the Kentish Town Forum after the relentlessly locked-in, brittle Nisennenmondai, the math-rock super-group manage to play a set that sounds off-the-cuff and improvised in spite of it adhering to a well-rehearsed script. The opener, “Africastle”, emerges from menacing washes of overdriven guitar, interspersed with a delicious pizzicato riff, before settling into a monstrous groove. The next song, “Sweetie & Shag”, reverses the formula, devolving from a ricocheting passage of proto-punk into a wailing, deranged squall. It also introduces another of Battles’s not-so-secret weapons (the first being their atavistic drummer John Stanier): a pair of portrait LED screens which, when called into action, display pre-recorded footage of guest singers lip-synching their parts (in this instance, the beautifully expressive Kazu Makino).

Later on, at the end of the joyous “Ice Cream”, the footage of Matias Aguayo is spliced and, yes, remixed to form an ersatz rhythm for the next song, “Inchworm”, this slowly being replaced by the real thing. They might well be performing this same trick every show they play—in fact, I know full well they are—but that doesn’t make it any less of a feat. This is the kind of gimmicky moment that characterises their set, and every one of them plants a smile on my face.

The sound is impeccable, although this word doesn’t quite capture the array of gurning, growling, snarling noises that appear to have been beamed in from a distant galaxy. One of their final songs, “My Machines” (which features a grimacing guest vocal turn from Gary Numan) really takes hold when Dave Konopka and Ian Williams cut into the clattering machine-rhythm with a pair of brutal, gut-punching guitar lines. Throughout, John Stanier’s drums sound like crisp machine-gunfire, while the swells of quasi-white noise that mark the segue of “Tonto” into “Ice Cream” pierce right into your skull.

The sequencing too, though hardly a deviation from this tour’s script, is inch-perfect. Two older cuts, “Atlas” and “Tonto”, are woven into the middle section; both are substantially repackaged to cater to the reduced line-up. The main set ends with the loping, carnival-esque barrage of “Futura”, and then the band return for a one-song encore which, following all the organized chaos which has come before, is a welcome bow-out of uncommon grace and beauty. “Sundome”, which is ameliorated by the otherworldly scat of Yamataka Eye, flows seamlessly from an airy, drifting movement into a glorious sunrise; the crepuscular aura is supplanted by the diurnal.

It was a thrilling, selflessly enjoyable set from a band who make complicated, intersecting rhythms sound like the catchiest pop music.

Battles played:

  1. Africastle
  2. Sweetie & Shag
  3. Dominican Fade
  4. Atlas
  5. Wall Street
  6. Tonto
  7. Ice Cream
  8. Inchworm
  9. My Machines
  10. Futura
  11. Encore: Sundome

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