Battles @ The Venue, 28 Apr

It's a precious thing to witness such a performance, and even rarer to come away thinking that the band in question are capable of even greater things

Article by Jay Shukla | 15 Jun 2006
  • Battles

Drooping shoulders and yawning visages pepper the crowd tonight, and as the clock ticks towards 2am there is a sense that Battles will need to pull off something pretty special in order to win over this weary throng. Thankfully, any anxieties are put to rest almost immediately, when drummer John Stainer ignites opener SZ2 with a drill of the snare and a thunderous peal of his absurdly positioned crash cymbal.

What Stainer and his bandmates create in the next hour is nothing less than awe inspiring. Stainer's precision could make a drum machine weep, and it is around this unfaltering core that the band unfurl their beautiful and dizzyingly complex music. Jazz, funk, electronic and rock influences are superimposed to startling effect as Braxton and Williams compete to see just how many instruments one person can operate simultaneously.

What comes across more than anything and what we realise has thus far been absent from their recorded output - is what a well-developed sense of humour this band possesses. Williams' keyboard playing is manic; its intricacy approaching the absurd at some points - at others lurching towards wide-eyed, carnival-esque glee. Similarly, Stainer's relentless, robotic pummelling of the hi-hat is completely mesmerising, yet also the source of not a little amusement ("does this man ever get tired? Is he even human?" words which I'll wager crossed the mind of almost everyone present tonight). Of course, such virtuosity would add up to little more than a freak show were it not for the fact that Battles write such gripping, extraordinary music. If their records suggest that they may have a propensity towards the cerebral, then tonight they smash this myth by imbuing their performance with a sense of fun and a raw, visceral power that connects directly with their audience.

More than this, tonight the music felt epic in places (grand, even) a trait which I had not hitherto discerned in their work. That the band are breathing new dimensions into old compositions is wonderfully encouraging. The new material also offered a tantalising glimpse into what lies ahead, and found Battles broadening their outlook even further; Dave Konopka in particular experimenting with a number of ballsy, grooving guitar lines. It's a testament to the efficacy of their craft that tonight it was their most well known and most straightforward song, Tras, that sounded the least vital - feeling almost pedestrian next to the gorgeous, tessellating themes of their more developed work. That said, it's still the kind of song that most bands would kill to be able to write.

Battles end this astonishing set by putting down their instruments one-by-one and filing off stage until only Stainer is left. Spotlit and seemingly oblivious to the departure of his friends, he hammers out his lonely beat for a few beautiful seconds longer, before finally making his own way backstage to rapturous applause. After the band have given us so much, we are somehow still left wanting more.

It's a precious thing to witness such a performance, and even rarer to come away thinking that the band in question are capable of even greater things. Battles are charting unknown territories. Watch them go.