They tell me I started to show interest in the violin at age two. My parents must have been thrilled—early involvement with music has long been cited by developmental psychologists as an effective way to improve cognitive skills, especially those related to math. I was a precocious little smarty-pants in elementary school—that was back when I was taking piano lessons—but when I switched over to guitar in my teens, my academics went to pot. I was a bit of a masochist during high school, routinely signing up for difficult math classes only to perform poorly in them. My parents, being Indian, wouldn’t stand for anything else.
The link between music and math seemed like a load of nonsense then—after all, my endless practice sessions certainly hadn’t equipped me to live up to my parents’ expectations, right? Nevertheless, during my freshman year of college, I signed up for a Music Theory course, and at last the parallels between music and math became apparent. Take trigonometry, for example: the simplest chords are built from invertible combinations of three notes, and there are three distinct chord functions that need to be stated in order to clearly delineate a key center. Finally, I could see the logic behind the art: there are rigid structures controlling the way music moves and breathes, and understanding them is a prerequisite for controlling them.
Battles seem to get that.
The band is built around former Helmet drummer John Stanier, who’s erected his kit front and center on Satellite’s stage, offsetting his seated presence with a lonely Zildjian K that towers high above both the audience and his bandmates. The ride cymbal is the primary timekeeper in most of the jazz world, and, here, Stanier seems to be telling us that time—and his control over it—are the centerpiece of his sound.
It seems almost dismissive to call Battles a quartet, because the group’s three other members all play double or triple duty. Dave Konopfka, Tyondai Braxton, and Ian Williams share the unenviable charge of cooking up the complex sludge which serves as the backdrop for Stanier’s battery. At any given moment, the three musicians might be working six instruments—including guitars, keyboards, bass, and electronics. Braxton and Williams are armed with everything from Echoplexes to Moogerfoogers, and Konopfka spends half the show down on his knees twiddling knobs on God knows what else.
But at the end of the day, Stanier is the heart, and all the gadgetry is just a Rube Goldberg machine for him to destroy with his drumsticks. Syncopation comes and goes every few bars, duple and triple meters collide with big bangs, and the group’s forays into 5/4 leave the headbangers utterly lost.
Stanier’s parts clearly call for tremendous physical exertion: he’s sweating profusely and even looks to be cursing under his breath between fills. Having to reach to get to that cymbal certainly doesn’t help matters. But it’s important: along the fringes of experimental audio, it’s arguably the presence of pulses and cycles that separates music from unorganized sound.
Though they’re still wont to lapse into passages of throbbing noise or guttural synths live, Battles retain a pop sensibility that allows them to cultivate an audience beyond headbangers and nebbishy basement noiseiks. Alongside Danny Carey’s spiraling assaults with Tool and Mike Portnoy’s obnoxious virtuosity via Dream Theater, Stanier’s work with Battles completes a balanced equilateral triangle of rock’s rhythmic expeditions. Or maybe it’s an obtuse isosceles—I mean, it’s Dream Theater, for Christ’s sake.
Stanier ends the encore behind the remnants of his dismantled kit, crouched atop a toppled floor tom and beating it with all the drama he can muster. The audience watches in amazement—like apes meeting Kubrick’s monolith to the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
And still, way up high, the cymbal.
In all likelihood, history will look back on the concept of “math rock” with as much ridicule as it does Gwar and nearly all musical taxonomies ending in “-core”—at the end of the day, it’s not really that different from regular rock, and is so named only because most musicians can only count to four. But, if nothing else, Battles shows us that math—or at least some of its gnarlier numerators—can play nice with music in spite of the pair’s mutual unease.
And guess what? I turned out alright after all.