Battles at Fine Line, 10/8/11

October 8, 2011
Fine Line Music Cafe

Even by Battles' radical standards, their highly charged performance at the Fine Line Saturday night was an extremely experimental show. 

The avant-garde New York trio were in a festive and feisty mood (along with everyone else packed into the small club), injecting their already innovative music with an added dynamic flair and a bristling pulse that clearly went over well with the boisterous capacity crowd. The breathless 90-minute set drew mostly from Battles propulsive new record, Gloss Drop, and showcased just how far out there Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, and John Stanier dare to take their inventive sound, as they boldly dismantled and refashioned their distinct songs anew in the live setting, transfixing the entire club in the process.

The show began with a prolonged, moody intro that eventually gave way to the recognizable staccato strains of "Africastle," which featured Willaims' fitful keys (played on dual sets of keyboards set at a 45-degree angle with the stage). But the track didn't truly take off until Stanier's churning drums kicked in (as is the case with most Battles songs), propelling the song to its fitful destination. But there were going to be plenty of musical detours featured throughout the evening, as the band instantly grew comfortable with their surroundings and audaciously decided to push their already idiosyncratic songs even further past the limits of sonic convention.

The lengthy opening track featured a wild, extended coda, as the band playfully deconstructed what was left of the melody of "Africastle" as they set off on a free form instrumental led by Stanier and Konopka, who deftly bounced from bass to guitar throughout the set. Willaims perhaps sensed that the song was spiraling out of control as he tried to bring us all back to reality a bit, interrupting the final remnants of the outro to greet the crowd warmly, "Hey Minneapolis--you aren't at the zombie party tonight. That's a good thing." Indeed it was, because right from the get go you could tell this wasn't a show to be missed.

Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino provided the edgy vocals to the next number, "Sweetie & Shag," as the vivid image of her singing was shown on two large LCD screens behind the band. The song even featured an offbeat breakdown at the finish, with both Makino's vocals and her image being remixed as the band whipped up a relentless rhythm behind her vocals. Stanier absolutely owned the churning Latin-flavored beats of "Dominican Fade," as his drumsticks formed a constant blur that continued throughout the set, occasionally striking the 7-foot high crash cymbal that was the looming visual focal point of his otherwise sparse kit. Williams kicked in a spirited cowbell part that only added to the song's vigorous cadence as BATTLES was colorfully spelled out on the screens behind him.

"Atlas" was one of only two older numbers (along with "Tonto") that found their way into the setlist, with the band replacing Tyondai Braxton's indelible vocals with the sound of a sinister choir that sang along to the track's fiery pulse. It was a massive highlight of the set, even without Braxton, as the band shifted the focus of the track to suit their own inventive styles while the arresting, claustrophobic image from the Mirrored album cover was projected on the screens. Battles have confidently outgrown what they used to be as a band, and now are far more reliant on their own estimable musical skills while leaving something as traditional as lyrics to various guest stars who popped up on the screens throughout the show (Matias Aguayo on an incendiary version of "Ice Cream" and Gary Numan on an unnerving rendition of "My Machines").

​But the undeniable focus of the entire show were the three extremely talented musicians crafting this wholly progressive music in front of us. The sound was so pitch perfect and pure that at times you could forget that there were actually humans up on stage creating this futuristic sound, that it could just as easily be computers creating this organized chaos you were hearing. But the band brings an inherent natural element to their arty, math-rock sound, injecting layers of warmth and soul into their polyrhythmic sonic experiments. And that underlying spirit is ultimately what makes their music so absorbing.

As the set drew to a tempestuous finish, the band were clearly enjoying themselves on stage, as Konopka joked, "Hi everybody, we're called Saddles. (Everyone laughs). I can't believe that joke worked. What better place to be on a Saturday night than Minneapolis. And, can I just say, fuck Baltimore. And while we're at it, fuck Detroit." I have no idea what those cities did to the band, but I can guarantee that the band enjoyed their time here (and won't ever have such harsh things to say about our city), as evidenced by the blistering, exploratory version of "Futura" that closed out the main set.

After a short encore break, Willaims and Konopka came on stage without Stanier, and seemed to be a bit thrown by his absence at first. Williams joked that "John quit the band," before conducting a quick Q&A with the audience ("What are your turn-ons?" "What do you make of global warming?") prior to launching into "Sundome," which Williams claimed "is the only song we know how to play without John."

After a tentative, improvised start, which featured the looped vocals of Boredoms' Yamataka Eye, Stanier eventually joined the band and brought the song and the night to a raucous, explosive close. Battles exceeded even the sky-high expectations of the legion of fans that packed the Fine Line, delivering an innovative, untamed set that made clear why the band is in a class by themselves in the world of experimental rock.

Battles at Fine Line, 10/8/11

Critic's Bias: I've been a fan since the moment I heard their second EP, but this was the first time I've seen Battles without Tyondai. And while someone with the creative flair of Braxton will always be missed, the band has chosen to reconstruct their textured sound to focus on their considerable musical strengths, which served them well.

The Crowd: A bunch of hardcore musos who were psyched to be seeing Battles in such an intimate room, as well as a small bunch of girls who for the most part couldn't quite figure out what their guys saw in this band.

Overheard In The Crowd: "I feel like I just had sex." (Immediately following the band's captivating performance of "Atlas.")

Random Notebook Dump: Openers Walls, a two-piece electronic outfit from London, set a great tone for the evening with their distinct style of intoxicating synth and guitar driven electronica. Their pristine, evocative sound was the perfect set-up music for the musical mayhem that was to come.

For more photos: See our full slideshow by Tony Nelson.



Sweetie & Shag

Dominican Fade


Wall Street


Ice Cream


My Machines


Sundome (Encore)

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