Battles + Nisennenmondai
20 Oct 2011: Fitzgerald's Houston, TX
On a cool Thursday night in Houston, the Japanese women of Nisennenmondai took the stage at the venerable Fitzgerald’s to polite interest from the show’s early arrivals. Their first song began with a simple, catchy bassline, and danceable, hi-hat dominated drums. Eventually the third member of the trio, Masako Takada, came in with washes of keyboard chords. Over the course of nearly fifteen minutes, the song slowly shifted from one groove to another and back. This repetitiveness gradually built up an exciting tension that paid off as the song crescendoed and faded. Takada switched over to guitar for the next song, and she ended up staying there for the rest of the set. During their 50-minute set, the band only played four songs. The growing crowd, already primed for the instrumental theatrics of Battles, responded enthusiastically to Nisennenmondai’s extended exercises in groove-based songwriting. For me, it got a little old by the third fifteen-minute epic. The band’s final song was much shorter and more frazzled, and it was both an intriguing departure and a strong closer. At Nisennenmondai’s center was drummer Sayaka Himeno, who expended buckets of energy keeping nonstop high-speed beats (and ace fills) going for the whole set. I get the feeling that their tracks may get tedious on record, but in the live setting, they were pretty exciting. And as an opener for Battles, they were a great choice.
Battles’ reputation as a strong live act precedes them. I’d heard stories of the craziness of the members playing keyboards and guitars simultaneously and moving all around the stage. As a fan of both of their albums, I was curious to see how all of the loops and synths in their music translated to the live setting. For a band that’s so tightly controlled in the studio, their live show was surprisingly chaotic. Instead of recreating the album versions of their songs, the band tends to set electronic loops into motion and bounce off them with their guitars and synths. Eventually, they usually get around to playing recognizable songs, but there’s a considerable amount of freewheeling involved.
The set began with buzzing electronic textures, gradually coalescing into Gloss Drop opener “Africastle”. The high-pitched keyboard melody played by Ian Williams pierced right through the crowd. It seemed incredibly loud, even standing at the back of the room and wearing earplugs, and his keyboards stayed that way through the whole show. Next, Battles slid their way into the good-natured “Sweetie and Shag”, complete with guest vocalist Kazu Makino’s performance projected on dual vertical HD screens at the back of the stage. After that the band played “Dominican Fade”, complete with Williams pounding on a cowbell suspended about seven feet off the floor. The cowbell placement made for a nice visual symmetry with drummer John Stanier’s famously high crash cymbal. “Dominican Fade” is a relatively short song, even in the expanded live setting, but it led into more throbbing loops. This time around, the loops morphed into the telltale “waaaammmp” sound of “Atlas”, and a large portion of the crowd danced along to the first of the band’s big singles. As you would expect, Battles solved the issue of former member Tyondai Braxton’s vocals by having Williams trigger the appropriate vocal samples from a console full of switches.
Williams handled all the vocals of the night in this fashion. When the band got to “Ice Cream” later on, Williams demonstrated that he controlled the video displays as well. As the main song came to an end, Williams started mixing and mashing Matias Aguayo’s vocals, and the video with it. It was a bit surreal to see Aguayo singing tiny bits over and over like some post-modern Max Headroom.
The chaotic nature of Battles’ show gives it a rush, but it also has its detriments. For one, the combination of loops and improvisation often leads to long stretches of what basically amounts to white noise. It wasn’t always engaging, at least not to me. For another, the band’s tendency to transition between songs by chopping and screwing their loops and sounds sometimes robs the songs of subtlety. Specifically, I’m thinking of Mirrored highlight “Tonto”. On the album, a big part of the track’s effectiveness comes from the slow build from sparse, quiet notes until it finally hits that signature chugging riff. The similar come down and fade out makes “Tonto” a marvel of quiet-loud-quiet songwriting. But in the live show, the main riff just appeared out of white noise and disappeared the same way a few minutes later. Played this way, the song wasn’t nearly as engaging.
Overall, though, the show was something to see. The main set ended with the one-two punch of standouts “My Machines” and “Futura”. “My Machines” was played basically straight, albeit with an extended ending that emphasized its heavy, senses-rattling climax. “Futura” was much more playful, and the band left the stage with the crowd cheering for more. The encore featured Gloss Drop closer “Sundome”, buttressed by yet more synthesizer and sequencer weirdness.
Seeing Williams and fellow multi-instrumentalist David Konopka manipulate their keyboards, sequencers, guitars, and basses was as cool as advertised, as was watching Stanier punish his drums. Battles put Stanier front and center on the stage, so it’s easy to see exactly how hard he works during the show. And he works hard. This was also evidenced by his button-down shirt, which started the night turquoise but finished it colored navy blue from his sweat. That seems like an apt illustration of the amount of energy the band puts out during a concert.