Review: Battles

(Heaven, Villiers Street WC2, 8th June 2011; review and drawing* by Geoff Winston)

Heaven is a cavernous place. The paint is black, the acoustics boomy, making the barrage of sound which came from Battles ( Ian Williams (keyboards, guitar) , John Stanier (drums)and Dave Konopka (bass guitar, electronics) all the more intense.

Once they had set up their equipment with the road crew, the trio returned to swamp the venue with a primordial volume, an orchestral ambition, and a touch of dry ice. The distinctive plink-plink keyboard lick from Williams on ‘Africastle’ picked over the top of Konopka’s industrially vibrating bass and Stanier’s crashing percussion.

This was unabashed notice of a hard ride through songs drawn exclusively from their album, ‘Gloss Drop’ (Warp), released two days before the concert. Onstage, the trio worked in an ultra-energetic state of constant improvisation and flux, as they ripped apart their own source material. They hauled the audience along with them, chopping and galloping, building a mesh of complex sequencing in amongst juddering, spacey phrases which had the naive freshness of the early Talking Heads.

They built up untrammelled dub reggae archives and simultaneously processed the disembodied vocals and film of their virtual ‘guest’ vocalists – Kazu Makino, Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan – on twin screens. Cowbell echoes and woodpecker drilling was dropped in for punctuation. Blinding white light suggested the white heat of the Velvet Underground. A sliding, country twang, a hint of glockenspiel led in to ‘Ice Cream’, extending the vocals of Aguayo in a complex, melodramatic mix, cutting and recutting the monochrome footage of his performance to heighten the power of the delivery, a statement of artistic control.

With parallels in jazz improv and minimalist repetition, the band’s confidence and experience carried them through a welter of lost riffs with a sense of extemporised play that gave the partisan audience no chance of dropping into a comfort zone. Dynamic, drenched in sweat, the trio delivered a definitive riposte to critics who have bemoaned their recent change in personnel.

Talking Heads’ song may persuade people that ‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.’ Battles went some way towards proving the opposite as they carved out their monstrous redefinition of what a live performance can be.

* Drawings copyright Geoff Winston 2011. All rights reserved.

Battles at Warp Records

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