What do the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan and proggy math rock have in common? For starters, they’re both wild places where seemingly anything can happen. They’re also both extremely rocky (sorry, I had to). Most importantly, they share an essential quality that largely defines them: inaccessibility. Just as the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan wouldn’t be so wild if it wasn’t a remote, mountainous deathtrap for invading armies, experimental rock wouldn’t be experimental if it didn’t push the envelope of what is conventionally considered possible and palatable. Avid enthusiasts of complex, time signature-shredding music may say, “Hell yeah! That’s the best part!”, but for bands who aim to make a good living playing this type of music, it seems like a tough line to walk. How do you keep pushing the envelope without pushing people away? How???
I had the pleasure of seeing that question asked and successfully answered when Battles performed at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. this past Sunday night. Battles is a very special band, boasting outsized doses of creativity, musicianship and precision, as well as one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen (please put seeing John Stanier in person on your musical bucket list — he’s nothing short of otherworldly), all of which help them construct songs that are unique and intellectually challenging. Think musical abstract (but not too abstract) painting. But throughout Sunday’s show, it became more and more evident that the band has a special knack for connecting with their audience, as well.
Though Battles lets the music do most of the talking, stopping to thank the crowd just a few times during the course of their set, Ian Williams switched gears and hosted a hilarious reverse Q&A session just before the encore began. After retaking the stage, Williams picked up the mic, casually asked, “Soooo, what do you guys doooo?” and listened for a few minutes as people shouted out everything from “Party!” to “Teach!” to “I change tires!” It was a refreshing, personal touch, as was Dave Konopka spending some time after the show with a few dedicated fans, even going so far as to explain how his live sampling equipment works.
The band’s performance walked the line of accessibility and complexity just as adeptly. Though their music certainly feels serious at times (Stanier opening the show by playing the sleigh bells on his knees felt almost ritualistic) and takes a certain level of concentration to fully appreciate, there was also plenty of dancing and visceral joy, and not just during crowd pleasers like “Atlas.” That’s because the climax of a song like “Wall Street” isn’t just an esoteric intellectual experience — you can feel the kick drum pound (god help the superfans who were standing less than a foot from that kick drum), hear the volume ramp up and see John Stanier kick into a gear that very few drummers have at their disposal. Plus, two large, vertically oriented video screens kept the sampled guest vocals on “Ice Cream,” “My Machines” and “Sweetie & Shag” from feeling disembodied, turning a situation that may have alienated some in the crowd into an engaging and stimulating element.
I walked away wildly pleased, not because of crazy drum solos or weird time signature changes, but because Battles make those things as approachable and fun as they are impressive. I hope you’ll join in on the fun by checking out the video for “My Machines” above, the album version below, and by buying their latest album, Gloss Drop, here.
Battles — “My Machines (Feat. Gary Numan)”