Battles blows minds, bubbles at Fine Line

By Jeff Gustafson

For me, the most enduring image of Battles’ show at the Fine Line on Nov. 7 will be guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams blowing an impressively large bubble while performing. This performance included, simultaneously, one-handed keyboard playing, Williams’ other hand tapping the guitar and, in general, Williams seeking to control whatever madness was running through his laptop and loop pedals. All this, presumably, while at least a bit drunk.I’m sure Williams did not intend the gesture to be symbolic, but it nevertheless gave a succinct summary of why I like Battles so much. Their musicianship, honed by the likes of math-rock maestros Lynx (guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka) and Don Caballero (Williams), is certainly fantastic, but their musical accomplishment goes well beyond mere virtuosity. They have somehow managed to find (or force) common ground between bubble-gum pop and math-rock and everything in between, purging the former of its banality and the latter of its inherent elitism. They represent a musical union that shouldn’t exist, and for that, the indie world is in their debt.

It might not be exaggeration to suggest that the opener, White Williams, was chosen just so Battles would seem even more innovative than usual. White Williams provided a serviceable 45 minutes of textbook ’80s-ish dance rock. I wish I could say there was something more distinctive about their set than the fact they were all dressed like lumberjacks, but my attention was consistently drawn to the mechanics of the fog machine above them. To their credit, they had a friendly, unpretentious stage presence, but I suspect that the 8.3 they garnered from Pitchfork for their new album “Smoke” has more to do with Pitchfork’s tendency to unquestioningly laud certain genres than anything. Plus, I don’t think they know anything about lumber.

Battles came onstage gradually, starting with Konopka and a tremolo bass lick. As the other three members filed in, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between live, looped live, and previously recorded material. Despite the confusion, my main fear – that I’d be watching four guys stand around and occasionally play a riff while somewhere a MacBook came close to crashing – was quickly allayed. Battles might sound like a bunch of robots, but their input is abundantly visceral.

Relative to the wall of dissonant loops characterizing the first three songs on the set, the beginning of their latest single “Tonto” was almost undetectable. Williams’ guitar did its best impression of one of those creepy jack-in-the-boxes that plays way too slow, barely preparing for the paranoid breakbeat to follow. It was the only track to end quietly, fading in the same haunting, minimalist fashion, to the ire of some of the crowd.

“Atlas” brought down the house, to the extent that term means anything in a room full of twenty-something, boozed-up hipsters. I don’t know why this is universally hailed as their best song, but seeing it live made me understand a bit better. The cheery, heavily processed vocals, rumbling drums, and syncopated robot sound effects make it about as close to the ideal audience participation song as possible even while a good deal of singer Tyondai Braxton’s lyrics are indecipherable.

“Race In,” my favorite from the band’s 2007 LP “Mirrored,” met the most technical problems. This was to be expected, as it starts with the most mathy drum section on the album and has a couple wicked guitar loops. The opening took about three times its studio length to get going, and it showed both in Williams’ flustered equipment fiddling and drummer John Stanier’s heroic but painful-to-watch maintenance of the beat. By the end, it was clear that their endurance was fading. This was not helped by the fact that one of the loops seeped into the next song unintentionally.

Altogether, they played about 70 minutes, including an encore. Even aside from the technical problems, it was probably not as exciting as it could have been. Aside from Braxton, the band maintained a cool distance throughout. It was impossible to avoid the suspicion that the accessibility that characterizes even their wildest experimentation is superficial.

It’s a small suspicion, though. Battles is still young, and their sound is still only just breaking free of the bounds and assumptions of their constituents’ previous work. There is still plenty of time for them to perfect their genre-subverting magic, and for the rest of us to benefit.