I saw Battles in the spring of 2007 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto. They were touring on the Atlas 12” single and, if my memory is correct, they opened with this song. I suspect many of us were familiar with the Battles EP’s but we weren’t ready for this new sound. As they wrapped up “Atlas”, we could barely bring our hands together to clap. This wasn’t the Battles we knew, and this was a very good thing.
Eight years later, Battles returned to Lee’s on October 1, 2015. Unlike the earlier show, the venue was certainly at capacity. The crowd was energized and surely more familiar with the two albums since Atlas: Mirrored (2007) and Gloss Drop (2011). The latest tour is in support La Di Da Di (2015). All albums were released on Warp Records.
Stylistically, Battles is a combination of experimental math-rock and dance-pop. They have described themselves as a group strongly interested in repetition and have emphasized the art of looping as the backbone of their work. Their music is an organized chaos, balancing the complicated interplay of Ian Williams (guitarist) and John Stainer (drummer) with Dave Konopka’s minimal aesthetic (guitarist).
The set featured mostly new material, likely because of the band’s commitment to musical progression. Additionally, all of Mirrored was written with Tyondai Braxton, who left the band amicably shortly after the album’s release and a few tours. The 2011 album also featured a number of guest artists and vocalists, so playing these tunes live – really live – is now impossible.
That being said, on October 1, Battles did play “Futura” and “Ice Cream” from Gloss Drop. Both these tunes have an “afro-pop” sound, to use the title of a Don Caballero song, Williams’s prior band. “Ice Cream”, the opening track and single, features Matias Aguayo on vocals. At the Lee’s show, with Aguayo’s pre-recorded vocals in Battles’s hands, “Ice Cream” became a remix of itself. “Atlas” worked in the same way, but the band exchanged Braxton’s vocals with a London-based school choir. This change added a whole new dimension to the tune. “Atlas” concluded the set and the crowd could not have been more pleased.
On to the new songs: Battles began their set with “Dot Com”, the seventh track from La Di Da Di. This opening tune served as a taste of the new sound and it provided hints of recognition of what the old fans could expect. The unexpected influence of Toronto’s Holy Fuck can certainly be heard in this song.
In addition to “Dot Com”, Battles played “FF Bada”, “Summer Simmer”, “Tricentennial”, and “Tyne Wear” from the new album. The title of a Battles piece often indicates something about the sound. “FF Bada” is one of the most math-rock-sounding tracks while “Summer Simmer” slowly transforms math-rock into a groovy dance, albeit with an abrasive synth during the chorus. On “Summer Simmer”, similar to other tracks, Williams rocks the guitar and the synth at the same time. This always makes for an outrageous sight.
“Tricentennial” immediately announces itself as a fanfare and is equally as short. The fanfare is not a line of trumpets, but Williams’s and Konopka’s synchronized guitars with brass-like effects. I watched the guitarists during the entire song – they never took their eyes off each other. As complicated as their music may be, the intense concentration for the math-rock/classic rock crossover is something I’ve never seen before. After “Tricentennial”, Battles calmed themselves down with “Tyne Wear”, a short, looping slow-jam complete with sleigh bells.
For an encore, Battles played the single from La Di Da Di, “The Yabba.” This tune undoubtedly shares Don Caballero’s fascination with technical rock. Williams and Konopka often write their guitar tracks separate from one another, thus when they reunite to create music, the result is a barrage of seemingly conflicting melodies and rhythms that eventually pair well together as the song progresses.
The body language and interplay of the band was entertaining and memorable. The anticipatory nature of the music and the emphasis on the multiple themes in each track lent itself well to a massive stage presence. Williams seemed to physically embody their use of polyrhythms and Stainer, likely due to the towering height of his signature crash symbol, was soaked head-to-toe in sweat, barely a half-hour into the night. His physical exertion did not rob him of his energy. While Konopka reserved himself physically, he was more eager to address the audience directly between songs, creating a level of involvement that cannot exist while they are at play.
The opening act, Buke and Gase, are also on tour with Battles. Their respective sounds complement each other well and, combined, both bands make for an aurally pleasurable evening.