Reviews

Battles

Vijith Assar

History will look back on "math rock" with as much ridicule as it does Gwar and nearly all musical taxonomies ending in "-core." But what about artists with a genuine sense of mathematic structure?

Battles

Battles

City: Charlottesville, VA
Venue: Satellite Ballroom
Date: 2007-06-13

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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