Battles at Sydney University’s Manning Bar is one of the band’s few Laneway Festival sideshows in Australia in February. The New York three-piece has gained something of a cult following around the world, and is touring in support of their third album, last year’s wholly instrumental La Di Da Di.
A sweaty, beer-stained Manning drips with anticipation before guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka sidles on stage, and gradually builds shimmers of Eno-esque synthesiser for opener “Dot Com”. Guitarist and keyboard virtuoso Ian Williams adds more electronic burbles while John Stanier, a big terminator of a drummer, arrives to propel the night onward.
Battles makes music that’s difficult to define. Konopka and Williams lend finger tapping and fast, intricate riffs, while John Stanier’s stint with alt-metal outfit Helmet in the 1990s helped develop his bone-shakingly cavernous drum sound. They encompass math rock, noise, rock, post rock, electro and ambient techniques to create a genre of their own. It’s often, fast, loud, groovy, tight, with odd time signatures and electronic glitches generated from machines that look like they once belonged to Professor Frink.
With each track, the band switch up a gear; for “Ice Cream”, Williams’ slippery chords tremble under the weight of his whammy bar, building to an orgasm of desperate bleeps and blast beats; while “Futura” is math rock played with keyboards, complete with off-kilter drums, jagged samples and almost calypso rhythms.
“Tricentennial” begins with a sea of synth as thick as jelly and guitars that somehow sound like trumpets – it’s one of many songs tonight that sound random and improvised, but are in fact faithfully recreating versions on record.
If there’s a more tightly-knit trio I’d like to see it. In the middle, Stanier, the big beef joint of the group, batters the shit out of his kit, especially his trademark crash cymbal 6ft off the ground which he hits vengefully as though it slept with his wife.
Either side, Williams and Konopka add colour with a variety of strings, keys and pedals. Williams nimbly taps strings on his guitar neck with his left hand, simultaneously mirroring the riff with his right hand on the keyboard; while Konopka works like a scientist in a lab, turning from one instrument to the next, occasionally dipping out of sight to attend to pads and pedals on the floor.
And they’re all so fast and energetic. By palate-cleanser “Tyne Wear”, Stanier’s dripping with sweat as though he’s just come out of the ocean. Every cymbal crash has a burst of sweat droplets spray from him like a sprinkler.
“You guys have one of the greatest cities in the world,” Konopka tells the crowd lovingly. “Do you think we say that to everyone? Do you think we say that to Manchester?”
They launch into “Summer Simmer”, led by Ian Williams’ special toy, the Ableton Push, a sequencer that lets him loop beats and samples from a vast menu. His fingers groove away on its platform of rubber keys as they light up like a multicoloured dancefloor. Their penultimate tune “Atlas”, which you may have heard during CBS’ Superbowl ad break , is driven by rumbling tom toms and disjointed lead guitar, and draws the biggest response from the crowd yet. Everyone who wasn’t previously dancing is now.
Battles feed off love from their audience, meaning the last track of the night is the most impassioned yet. “The Yabba” is outrageous, full of ray-gun synth, slide guitar and a hi-hat that quivers with tension. It’s so tightly-orchestrated and physical, like a synchronised army of robots working down the mines. Sweaty and exhausted, they bow out after only an hour and 15 minutes. I would’ve loved another couple of tracks, but I guess maintaining that much energy for much longer would’ve been as tough as Bikram yoga.
Don’t miss these guys. Hop on a plane if you need to. They’re surely the most exciting live act in the galaxy right now.