Battles @ The Forum, Melbourne (28/01/12)

On a balmy night at the Forum, Melbourne post-punk scuzz-merchants Witch Hats – looking wild-eyed and a little out of place in the Forum’s salubrious surrounds – were charged with the task of warming up Battles’ many expectant fans. Whilst their set didn’t want for energy – or volume – it nonetheless felt like the band got lost on the way to the Tote. Of course, Kris Buscombe’s piercing howl commands attention, but only when it’s not buried in a distortion haze. Unsurprisingly, it was two of the band’s more measured songs, In The Mortuary and Hear Martin (both from their recent Pleasure Syndrome) that gave Buscombe some breathing space; unsurprisingly, both were highlights.

And so, after a long interval, and with some truly weird-looking gizmos having been set up, Battles finally emerged. Bassist/guitarist/arcane sound-merchant Jon Konopka and keyboardist/guitarist Ian Williams quickly sounded out the opening strains of Africastle, the first track off their recent Gloss Drop album. As the two threw out ever-stranger sounds, drummer John Stanier cruelly kept the audience in suspense (for the uninitiated; Stanier is probably one of the best rock drummers in the world), merely shaking a sleigh bell until he, and we, couldn’t take it anymore; finally launching into a pulse-quickening, lock-step groove with Konopka. Over the top came Williams, offering staccato keyboard melodies, harmonised on guitar. That’s keyboard and guitar, simultaneously. Yes, at the same time. The whole mess careened like a car with its brakes had been cut, before grinding to a sudden, dramatic halt. The stunned silence that preceded the applause told the story; for many, prog/math/experimental rock nirvana had been attained.

With the largely instrumental offerings of Gloss Drop being leavened by guest vocalists, it wasn’t clear if the band would simply ignore those songs, modify them heavily, or attempt to take the lead themselves. As it turned out, it was none of the above. As Sweetie and Shag chugged to life, Kazu Makino appeared on the two large LED screens on either side of Stanier’s drum kit. Williams ‘played’ her vocal samples in real time, as the synchronised video played. Battles’ collaborations with Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan followed a similar tack, and the arrangement worked a treat, allowing the band to retain a live element without sacrificing either sound or spectacle.

Though his musicianship was stunning, suspicion started to arise in my mind as the set progressed that some of Williams’ offerings were a bit, well, superfluous. Whilst Stanier was impersonating a diesel engine and Konopka was covering both bass and rhythm guitar duties through the inspired use of triggers, loops and octave pedals, Williams seemed to spend a lot of time on the cusp of playing something, before bashing out a quick run or an atonal squawk, seemingly with no regard for the requirements of the song being performed at the time. Though occasionally dramatic, it was also a bit distracting on occasions.

However, during My Machines, it became clear that Williams was struggling with more than just maintaining enthusiasm; with the spooky image of a leather-clad, mascara-wearing Gary Numan bellowing on the screen behind him, Williams’ machines were clearly letting him down. Over half of the song’s duration elapsed before he, with the assistance of a tech, was able to even eke a note out of his formidable rig (sampler, keyboard to either side, guitar, cowbell). Perversely, this added to the drama of the song, and his ghoulish synths added a new dimension. Unfortunately, the issues seemed to recur throughout the remainder of the set, to the visible irritation of Williams.

However, the other players rolled on, with Stanier in particular keeping things moving; it can’t be easy to ally such power with finesse and musicality – and judging by the litres of sweat that poured from Stanier throughout the set, it isn’t – which explains the esteem in which Stanier is held.

Both their most prominent and their most accessible song, Atlas was met with a predictably nutty response; the venerable floorboards of the Forum heaved noticeably under the heavy, shuffling groove. Interestingly, the departed Tyondai Braxton’s vocal was nowhere to be heard, replaced by a children’s choir that was triggered by Williams. While it worked musically, it made one wonder about Braxton’s supposedly amicable departure from the band.

Given the sort of feats Konopka and Williams were performing in order to fill out the sound, it was hard not to wonder how much Battles lost in choosing not to replace the extra set of hands that they lost. Certainly, as well as the energy of a live singer (though admittedly the screen/trigger solution was ingenious), this stripped-down Battles seemed to lack the ability to sustain interest through dynamic variation. Though this could be more to do with the more streamlined sound of Gloss Drop – from which the set list was almost completely derived – more likely it was just the best that three dudes, albeit remarkably skilful ones, could manage. It can be fascinating to watch a band struggle against self-imposed limitations, but not when those limitations threaten to make an extraordinary band sound ordinary.

When encore time arrived, Konopka and Williams strolled out, said their thank you’s, and embarked on an exploratory, patience-testing drone-fest. Eventually Stanier emerged to assist them with a rendition of Sundome, but a fair few audience members had given up by then. Of course, plenty stayed for what was a fitting, wigged-out send-off, but still…why do that? Battles make challenging music and are loved for it, but challenging and difficult are entirely different things. Still, even those that left early were mostly grateful for what they had heard.