The bronze metallic façade of Mao Livehouse makes the venue seem like some sort of metal-working factory, a fitting place for a night of rhythmic, motorized music from Battles.
Several hundred of us, both expats and Chinese, were fortunate to catch the quirky super-group play in Beijing last Friday. Lots of us stared at all the equipment being dragged up on stage — all sorts of whirligigs and doodads and thingies with banks of flashing lights.
I’ve listened to the album Mirrored a lot, and the band’s semi-robotic mechanized sound is prevalent, but not as much as in its live show. The sounds really do come off as a series of whirs and noises looped into rhythms, layered with keyboard, bass, guitar and robo-vocals, all while keeping perfect time with the band’s metronomic drummer, John Stanier. That’s not to say they have no soul, though.
Battles clearly loves what it does, especially keyboardist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton. He was snaking, shimmying, and smiling all over the place as he played and sang. The vocals were a little too low in the mix for my taste, but they were loud enough that we could still enjoy the glorious, maddened robotic singing.
Stanier often had a pained look of concentration on his face, but it was the good kind of pain that comes from being the most important cog in a conveyor belt of music — repetitious complex beats kept his concentration piqued and his teeth gritted. Every member was sweating, concentrating, moving, playing, swaying, jerking — each one a very human part of the machine that is Battles.
The set started with “Race: Out,” with a loud, deep, tangable noise intro that absolutely had me salivating with curiosity before the band cycled through a lot of the material from Mirrored. Each song engulfed us in its aura as we watched, dumbfounded that this stuff could actually be played so well live.
Well, “live” — there is quite a lot of sampling from laptops and various knobs, dials, and gizmos, but essentially, it’s much more live than most laptop artists. Occasionally, prerecorded samples are played, but that’s done while something else is played with one hand.
An image burned in my memory is of both guitarists, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka, playing their instruments with one hand while playing keyboard with the other, then stretching a third hand (or was it a leg?) to turn some dial or press some big red shiny button.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been blown away by a band, since I’ve left a show feeling pummeled, confused, basted, and giddy all at the same time. Pay any price for the chance to see this band play live; pay all that you have and get ready to have your synapses overloaded.
– Daniel Fuller