Battles at Bottom Lounge

Imagine being one of the most celebrated indie bands of the last decade and you are trying to follow up your first full-length album with something equally brilliant. Then out of nowhere, your chief songwriter/lead singer/guitarist quits on you in the middle of the recording process, just as you are planning your next world tour. This was the terrible fate that befell experimental rock group Battles a little over two years ago. The remaining members Ian Williams, John Stanier, and Dave Konopka chose to carry on as a trio and managed to finish the album despite the arduous task of re-writing it within four months. Gloss Drop was an entirely new beast compared to its predecessor Mirrored, featuring fewer vocals but carrying sharper melodies and a new found energy that burst from the seams of the tracks. With Tyondai Braxton providing most (if not all) of the vocals, the group called on several guests to help out for the new release. And as pleasant as it sounded in the studio, I wondered how everything was going to translate in a live setting? Would three guys really be able to cover all the bases needed for this complex and intricate machine? Would they play any tracks that featured vocals on them? I was unable to attend the original date for this show but low and behold, it ended up being postponed due to a family emergency from one of the group’s family members. Not the circumstance you wish for, but what can you do? Summer was just heating up, and Bottom Lounge proved to be the ideal location for this equally scorching show.

The first thing that stuck out was the amount of gear on stage; you would have thought there were five members instead of three. Ian Williams manned two synthesizers, one on each side of his torso with both angled upward so the keys were easier to reach. He also played guitar, had a dizzying array of effects pedals, and utilized some sort of controller/MPC type pad that was connected to a laptop running Ableton. He alternated among all these instruments and utilized them as much as possible. Opposite of him, Dave Konopka played bass and had an equal amount of foot pedals and processors used for various effects. Drummer John Stanier had a very stripped-down kit, with only a hi-hat, crash cymbal, one hanging tom, snare, floor tom, and kick drum. Even with the smallest equipment set of the group, he may have had the most powerful impact on the show out of anyone.

They began the show with the opening number off of Gloss Drop “Africastle,” a song that features a patient, almost squeaky buildup before it completely turns into a full-on explosion of color and anger. Once Stanier exerted his brute force on the skins, all my hesitations and concerns were put to rest. His lone cymbal was positioned almost six feet in the air so when he went to hit it, he cocked back and put all his force behind it. As he attacked the drums, Konopka and Williams built the melodies and shaped the sound through their various instruments. These guys were like a well-oiled machine, very precise and almost analytical in their approach. I would use the phrase “organized chaos” when describing them to a stranger. The first track with vocals came from “Sweetie & Shag,” and featured Kazu Makino. This was where Ableton came in handy. The group used her vocals and ran them through the software while also playing a music video of her singing on their LED screen. It was a good way of compensating for not having her with them and they synced it up seamlessly. They did the same thing on “Ice Cream” with Matias Aguayo.

Perhaps the two tracks that exemplified their superb musicianship were “Wall Street” and “Futura.” Both songs were executed flawlessly, with precision as well as power. And both had enough dance sensibilities in them to get the crowd dancing too. For most of the show the audience just gazed at the stage and were trying to make sense of what was happening. They were silent throughout the performance, but exploded with cheers after a song was ended. The banter was kept to minimal and the Battles kept a very business-like approach. That was totally ok, their music did all the necessary talking on this night. What really shined most was the communication and solidarity of these three men; they were all parallel to each other on stage, nobody hid in the background or stood at the front. It was a powerful image and reminded me of the famous quote “united we stand, divided we fall.”  With all the adversity they have overcome in the last few years, it really makes you appreciate this group the more you learn about them. They are at the cutting-edge of where rock music is going; throw on some headphones and give them a chance if you haven’t already.

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Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse.