In the beginning, there was rhythm. Stay with me though, and don’t allow that ‘pompous review’ alert to go off in your mind – for this was the phrase that came to mind during a set of unbelievable strength from Battles, which stripped music to its very foundations.
“London, it’s unhealthy how much we love you!” said bassist Dave Konopka. “It’s getting nasty!” It certainly was, right from the moment the trio’s set began with ominous rumblings in its lower end, the music stripped back to its bare essentials as the opening strands of Dot Com pulsed through the Electric Ballroom. At times it felt as though the building’s foundations were at risk, the ground shaking to the many and varied beats of John Stanier’s drums.
Stanier was the star, a prodigious drummer but not an indulgent one. Every hit of the bass drums, struck with awesome power, was supplemented by rolling toms (on a triumphant rendition of Atlas), simmering cymbals or crushing blows to the snare. Even the shaker, used to open Tyne Wear, was operated with nothing less than brute force. Yet for all this primal aggression there was craft too, and the clipped syncopations marking out the band’s best work ensured potential dancers and crowd surfers found themselves off the beat as often as they were on it.
With such raw musical power at their disposal Battles don’t need much in the way of stage gimmicks. An occasional flickering of the lights was all that was required, the compelling presence of the band – and in particular Stanier – enough to keep the crowd spellbound. On occasion the challenge lay in working out just how he was powering the percussion section. The right hand dealt with the enormous cymbal, which hung like a giant sunflower in the middle of the stage, while the left hand somehow pounded the living daylights out of the toms. Meanwhile the feet – assuming he has two, not three – delivered the almighty, ground shaking bass.
From all this you will gather the New Yorkers delivered a thrilling set, from the pile driving Ice Cream – Matias Aguayo sadly absent but the vocals delivered as a sample – to Tyne Wear, sounding like a chord sequence from Stravinsky’s Petrushka fed through a wood chopper. Album tracks clocking in at a mere three minutes on record found themselves stretched out to eight-minute behemoths.
As a warm-up to the set our adventurous DJ tried to throw us off the scent by playing the trumpet-powered baroque Prince Of Denmark’s March and Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. As we emerged onto the street to hear a bongo player busking nearby, thoughts were far from mellow – and every bit of percussion heard for the next week or so will now be rendered meaningless, like someone rustling a bit of paper. Because for Battles, rhythm is life – and life is rhythm.