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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.