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Three Songs No Flash

Battles Live At The Shacklewell Arms
Sean Kitching , August 14th, 2019 12:18

Sean Kitching crams himself into the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston along with Battles and all of their big ideas, and rediscovers the excitement of first seeing them play live 14 years ago

Battles live by StarLynn Jacobs

The first time I saw Battles play, at the long since defunct Bardens Boudoir in Dalston, on 17 July 2005, I was convinced I had seen something immensely exciting and largely without precedent. Sure, there were elements of Steve Reich’s use of circular repetition to their loops and ‘electric gamelan’ era King Crimson in Ian Williams’ finger tapping guitar technique, but watching this ultra-glossy, electronic-edged dance music assembled by a rock quartet with the open-handed showmanship of expert stage magicians, seemed like bearing witness to something beamed in from the future.

During the many subsequent occasions I saw them, Battles never disappointed, but neither did they fully recapture that initial rush of first exposure. Following the departure of vocalist Tyondai Braxton, the band toured Gloss Drop with video screens enabling guest vocalists such as Gary Numan, Yamantaka Eye and Kazu Makino to appear onstage alongside the trio. It was a neat trick, but watching the current incarnation of the group, now condensed even further to the duo of Ian Williams on guitar and keys, and John Stanier on drums and Roland sampling pad, it seems an unnecessary contrivance.

Having spent the afternoon with their magnificent forthcoming album Juice B Crypts on repeat, then having the good fortune to see those songs being built from the ground up in such an intimate venue, it soon becomes obvious that in many ways, Battles make more sense as a duo, the music taking centre stage without the mediation of smoke and mirrors.

All but three tracks of tonight’s set are from the new album, and all are delivered live with an intensity transcending the already high hopes implied by their studio versions. ‘Fort Green Park’, ‘Loops So Nice’ and its segue track ‘They Played It Twice’, are received rapturously by a crowd already primed for action by an eclectic, pumping Battles DJ set that precedes their stage appearance. Despite the complexity of this music, the somatic persuasiveness of its rush of notes and beats comes close to annihilating the distinctions between the intellectual and physical, leaving the audience the choice of submitting unreservedly to the ecstatic pull of dancing with abandon, or keeping one eye open to observe the entrancing skill of its creation.

Williams taps out guitar lines with one hand and keyboards with the other, looping patterns and triggering vocal samples, and delivering some dizzyingly deft manoeuvres on his Ableton Push. Reduced now to a duo, it would perhaps be understandable if Battles were to take an easier route to playing their music live by relying more upon pre-recorded material and playing to a click-track. It would also severely restrict their sense of spontaneity. A slight mistake halfway through the set confirms this not to be the case, but by then it has become obvious anyway.

Current single ‘Titanium 2 Step’, featuring vocals from Sal Principato of the legendary New York post-punk band Liquid Liquid, receives an utterly banging rendition, Stanier shifting to mallet-style drumsticks and ending the track with one hand hammering his famously high situated cymbal into oblivion, whilst the other pounds out an insanely fractured tribal beat. There are few drummers who can compare favourably to Stanier in any genre of music, and certainly when it comes to almost inhuman levels of precision and the force with which he hits those skins, he’s entirely in a class of his own.

‘The Yabba’, from their less well received third album, La Di Da Di, sounds considerably more frenetic than in studio form, again emphasising that perhaps the loss of bassist Dave Konopka is not necessarily a bad thing. ‘Sugar Foot’ from the the new record, featuring vocals from Yes frontman Jon Anderson and contributions from Taipei psychedelic band, Prairie WWWW, is a stand out track on the album and considerably more exciting live too.

Battles have always been concerned with obliterating genre boundaries, and watching the audience going wild to this track is especially pleasing. Surely, I think to myself, this is the furthest such esoteric guitar playing has been smuggled into the EDM universe. ‘Izm’, with Shabazz Palaces, gives Stanier an opportunity to play some mighty, hip-hop inspired beats. The crowd’s response to the new material is enormously enthusiastic, but the wildest response of the night comes when Williams and Stanier start up the glam-rock loop with munchkin vocals that is ‘Atlas’.

Finally, the hour-long set finishes with ‘Last Supper On Shasta’ and ‘Ambulance’, the last and first tracks from Juice B Crypts, linked on the album by their sharing of a keyboard motif that slyly implies an infinitude of looped potentiality. The crowd bellow for more but an exhausted Stanier is already off stage and posing for photos with fans. Williams stands to the opposite side and I grab his hand for a quick ‘thank you’ before I make my exit.

In the case of Battles current incarnation, less would appear to be more and for me they finally recaptured the enormous thrill of the first time I saw them. Exceptional music such as this that moves the body, mind and soul (if you want to call it that), and does so with an incredible degree of virtuosity that somehow renders itself inconspicuous in the joyousness of its construction is exceedingly rare, and on the evidence of tonight, this new formation of Battles is its leading proponent.

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