Sunday, 3 July 2011

Gig review: Battles.

I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to see Battles last week, and this time in my hometown. If you didn't know, Battles are a math-rock band from New York, New York. Their first album, Mirrored, received critical and commercial success back in 2007, but the band have been pretty quiet till now.

I've seen them once before, at Benicassim festival in Spain, but this time the experience promised to be different for a couple of reasons. Firstly they have recently released a new album, Gloss Drop, and secondly the line-up of the band was different than before...

Now, before I dive wholeheartedly into the show, I'll set the scene somewhat. The chance to go to the gig came as a bit of surprise, and as such my research was hardly in order. I knew the band had a new album out, and I'd heard little of it, if all truth be told. This was partly due to hearsay, and unfortunately the negative kind. It's always tough as a performer when you release a first album of such high quality, to then follow it and hope to match the same benchmark. It seemed from what I had heard that Battles had failed in this regard, and the remarks being bandied about in reference to Gloss Drop were often less than savoury.

Saying that, I was still excited. It was also a chance to return to the Bar Fly, now the bottom level of the HMV Institute, a venue a lot of my friends played at when gigging in the city back in the day. The revamp has certainly done its job: a dark, dusty and rusty corner entered through a parking lot has been converted into a cleaner and much better sounding little den of musical genius. The room is just about the right size for a small venue; intimate but not intimidatingly so. There are a couple of criticisms though, one being the appalling placement of weird arches that emerge from the sides of the bar, and the other being the horrendous price of drinks. My girlfriend's glass of wine, for instance, set me back £4.95.

The support was also great. I've previously mentioned Young Montana? on this blog, so I was delighted to see his mop-topped head appear on stage. He played a great set, mainly from his new LP, though he did find time to throw in 'Sacré Cool' as well. He was obviously a bit nervous, and sometimes this affected his mixing, but never in a less than endearing way. It was a bit of a shame that the majority of the crowd weren't really into this type of music, and it was more disappointing that many seemed unwilling to open their minds and give it a go, but for those that did it was thoroughly enjoyable. It's difficult as a producer/DJ to play as support for a band, especially when you play dance music. I imagine the same is true for other instances like Fantastic Mr. Fox supporting the XX, as gigs are usually early evening affairs, and dance music to an 8pm crowd with an overwhelming sense of sobriety isn't going to get the response it really deserves.

On to the main event. As the stage was set-up, I started to come to realisation that something wasn't quite right here. Drums were placed in the centre, a bass, guitar and a plethora of pedals on the right, and keys and computers on the left. Three spots. Aren't there four people in Battles?

Now, although I like to assume I am a relative font of knowledge in large swathes of modern music, I am almost certain I was the last person in that room to find out a member of the band had left. Turns out Tyondai Braxton (much vaunted man of amazing name, hair, and musical skill) had left the band to pursue his solo works. Unfortunately for the band, he wrote much of the first album, as well as playing key parts of the songs (such as the vocals) that can't really be replaced. As such the band played a very heavily second-album show. Retrospectively, this was totally understandable, but at the time, I was gutted.

This seems like a lot of negativity, but I'll assuage that easily enough. The band's skill has never been in doubt, and knowing that some people (like myself) might be a bit sceptical, they played their hearts out. The drummer John Stanier was particularly incredible. He was there again with his trade-mark higher than high high-hat, and in a heavily air-conditioned room he was a pinpoint of sweat, tears and energy who was virtually melting by the end. You can see why he's placed where most bands put their lead singer.

Another pleasant point was the use of projections on the stage. For reasons already explained there was no singer on stage, and if you look at the tracklist for their second album you'll quickly see liberal use of guest vocalists. So it was pretty unexpected and surreal when three people-sized projections of Gary Numan's face from different angles appeared on-stage. The same was done of Kazu Makino (of Blonde Redhead) and Matias Aguayo and the spectacle really added something to the performance that was perhaps missing with out the antics of Braxton.

The way I see it you can judge the show in two ways. First would be to compare it to previous four-piece performances, and in this respect you can't help but feel slightly let down. This is simply due to the fact that none of the critically acclaimed first album was played, not to the band's individual performances.

I think to look at it in this way would be unfair, however. The band easily could have called it a day after their key-member left, but instead they carried on regardless, and the show should be judged on its own merit rather than what it could have been. As such, I think it was a massive success. The life and energy as well as music brilliance pouring off the stage was tangible in waves. The encore was richly deserved and expertly carried out (an extended version of White Electric getting richly received). We can only imagine what a second album with Braxton would have been like, but really we should be thankful there is a Battles to talk about at all.