There couldn’t be a better allegory for the entirety of the Battles mission than drummer John Stanier, head down, punishing his hi-hat and snare like stubborn soil in a chain gang right before making a reach for it. Stanier, a drummer center-stage as band leader almost more so than Phil Collins, shoots for his too-high crash cymbal on his Tama set just as Battles stretches for distinction.
Deem it math-rock if you must, the show last night at the Bluebird was more adequately described as invigorating and, sure, experimental. And the test worked — brilliantly. The trio began the night with an elongated and spaced-out version of “Africastle” from its recent “Gloss Drop.” It set the tone, with the men positioned at their triangular posts with determined ferocity. Stanier sweated through his button-up almost instantaneously — removing it later, he stood only to drop beads visible from the balcony. Ian Williams nimbly moved — often with a guitar — like a David Byrne impression of Fred Astaire, keyboards on either side of him instead of a cane or umbrella. Dave Konopka held court commanding guitars and more effect buttons than a Michael Bay soundstage.
The visual aspect of this Battles tour can’t be understated: Two large screens behind the trio project vivid images of everything from past video stills to absent singers in a shrewd fusion of reality and the virtual. (Gary Numan appears on “My Machines” like Brando in “Superman,” a surreal player in the script. Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino and Matias Aguayo cameo during their respective tunes from “Gloss Drop,” too.) There aren’t many moments in a performance as lively as this one that regrets come about, but during “Atlas,” drop-out member Tyondai Braxton’s presence was missed. Songs from the group’s previous one, “Mirrored,” just aren’t the same as they were at, say, the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival or the following year at Central Park’s SummerStage.
Still, the new ones beamed. Much of the time this is an instrumental band — they have jazzy beginnings with their two trenchant EPs and are increasingly improvisational without Braxton as vocalist — and the elaborate progressions on a song like “Futura” were Coltrane-like. Perhaps the only simple conclusion about the night was the fact that Battles are currently one of the finest bands — most especially live — by any math.
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.