Live Review: Battles

ICA, London. April 20th

[a]Battles[/a] look sombre. Multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams is scowling in a black suit, guitarist Dave Konopka looks like he might burst into tears at any moment and drummer John Stanier is so perma-stern you get the impression he would look like he was attending a funeral even if he was dressed as Rastamouse. So an ominous dirge of rumbling minor-key finger-tapped chords and sepulchral organs suggest that tonight might be a requiem for former member Tyondai Braxton – the closest thing this phenomenal live band had to a singer – rather than triumphant return gig.

And given that their new album ‘Gloss Drop’ features a stellar cast of guest vocalists who are unlikely to be at such a low-key launch (a more bells-and-whistles tour will follow in June), they could be forgiven for looking slightly distressed. Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino might not be present, but during ‘Sweetie & Shag’ her image is projected onto two monolithic screens at the back of the stage, and the audio visual ‘sample’ is manipulated by the band. They try the same manoeuvre with Matias Aguayo on new single ‘Ice Cream’ but there’s a noticeable disconnect between the image and sound. Perhaps they’re over-thinking this problem.

As befits a very modern band, [a]Battles[/a] cause a peculiar dysfunction in their fans: cine-thesia. Like its homophone synaesthesia, this is a mix-up in the neural networks – but instead of tasting colours or smelling flavours, sufferers hear movie scenes. All of [a]Battles[/a]’ tunes suggest movie mash-ups, and tonight ‘Inchworm’ conjures up Point Blank’s Lee Marvin prowling through the neo-Tokyo of Akira, while ‘Futura’ has Tusken Raiders inhabiting Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Battles are so good at packing out the theatre inside your brain they don’t need a literal picture-show backdrop (although the place goes wild when [a]Gary Numan[/a]’s craggy face flickers into being for ‘My Machines’).

Probably the most satisfying track of the evening is the encore of ‘Sundome’. Presumably because guest vocalist Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms lives in a wooden shack up a mountain in Japan, he was hard to get hold of for his video shoot. Instead, the trio use [a]The Chemical Brothers[/a]’ solution to the same problem: ignore the lack of vocalist and just use his messianic chanting as yet another channel of raw material to fuck up live. These vocal issues are really of secondary importance, however: tonight, musically, the new-look [a]Battles[/a] line-up have proved gloriously that, even if they’re not smiling about it, they’re going to have their Hollywood (un)ending.

John Doran