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Digital Love

Battles, Dark Water Transit, Yukon, Ottobar, March 20

Frank Hamilton
RIDE CYMBAL WAY HIGH IS FREEDOM: Battles' Tyondai Braxton sings.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 3/28/2007

Battles, Dark Water Transit, Yukon

Ottobar, March 20

The first thing you notice about a Battles show is the ride cymbal. Standing a good six feet or more off the ground, it's taller than a few of the band members. It's even been immortalized in the posters for the New York band's current U.S. tour, which kicked off at the Ottobar last week, where it comically towers above even the Marshall stacks.

Forget Battles' two blinking keyboards, two glowing laptops, three guitars, and that central nervous system of wires and cables. That ostentatious, gnarled bronze disc, listing to one side from all the abuse, instantly made red-faced and sweaty sticksman John Stainer--practically leaping with visible strain each time he took a swing at it--the flesh-and-blood focal point of this very digital rock band. Battles purposefully positioned the kit at the front and center of the stage.

Battles has a metal pedigree, despite sounding at best like metal performed by the little kids in Santa Claus Versus the Martians. Guitarist Ian Williams comes out of Don Caballero, a '90s band that fractured metal's sense of linear time on each consecutive album until it felt like free improvisation. Stainer spent his '90s knotting up tourniquet rhythms for the micromanaged hard rock of Helmet.

And attendees looking for the rock certainly got it from the local openers. Yukon looked and sounded like it stepped right out of Helmet and Don Caballero's wake, playing the kind of brutishly smart hardcore the latter did on its early singles, the intricate rhythms and Marine-drilled rolls of bearish drummer Nick Podgurski often thrilling, even if the screams got swallowed by too much distortion in the mix. Beefier and less fussy, Dark Water Transit cooked up complex from the rangy riff of ZZ Top, adding a little much-needed gristle and fat to the smarty, arty metal's often thin and plinky guitar sound. It was boogie you couldn't exactly boogie to, and DWT's heavy rock definitely gave you some killer riffs to gnaw on.

It wasn't clear what border dialect Battles were speaking, though it didn't sound like anything the Gibbons brothers and Mr. Beard would have recognized. But that aforementioned heavy-rock pedigree might be why so many metal kids showed up to hear music that sounded more like a steroidal, caffeinated Kraftwerk. And as with Kraftwerk, this wasn't a show with a lot of chitchat or personable fucking around onstage.

A track like "Tonto," from the band's forthcoming debut album, Mirrored, was a good example. It began as head-scratcher--a heavily orchestrated call-and-response for disjointed keyboard and guitar phrases--only to explode into a triumphant meat and potatoes rock riff. For about a minute, that is, until the band's three multi-instrumentalists played a long, slow, fractured fade-out, like a cyclotron winding down into a zonked slo-mo funk, with Stainer rattling a tambourine placed atop his high-hat.

But despite the heads-down implacability--the sweaty chills and thrills of opening a file on a Macintosh--that can be so boring when a rock band goes electronic, Battles onstage felt more like play, like a relay race or ring around the rosie, than science class. Forget lab coats--Afroed Tyondai Braxton sported a blindingly patterned, rainbow-hued Bape-style hoodie. Williams, looking like Stephen Malkmus in a Casio trance, swayed and bopped on the balls of his feet like a little kid lost in his own world.

And no one seemed to be working and playing harder than Stainer. On Mirrored, the drums crack with such quantized restraint that you might think they came from a computer, but live that restraint is all in the muscles, coming to a head during a killer take on the band's new single, "Atlas." (Strangely, this was when the audience disengaged.) It's actually Battles' least complex and most glam-rocking song, sounding like a robot T. Rex (the band, not the lizard). But it built a slow, swinging tension for nearly six minutes, climaxing with furious attack on that ride cymbal. If you liked groove, and enjoyed (or could overlook) Braxton's hyperprocessed chipmunk vocals, Battles delivered one of the best shows of the still young year; I actually kinda regret not buying a T-shirt. And thankfully there was only one jackass shouting for "In the Meantime."

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