words: NOEL GARDNER photos: SIMON AYRE
Battles’ last gig in this city was in 2007, during a summer where they showcased debut studio album Atlas at what seemed like every single festival on the planet. In this instance, they’d just played an excellent headline set at Powys’ Green Man weekender, then spent almost an entire day filming a video, meaning the Cardiff show lacked a certain energy and zip. Four years on, the circumstances are familiar – they hit Wales the day after a slot at Glastonbury – but the band themselves have been through the wringer somewhat in the interim. The NYC band are currently a three-piece, the result of parting ways with Tyondai Braxton last year; the degree of acrimony here can perhaps be gauged by reading interviews in which the remaining members talk about him without using his name. Nevertheless, Battles’ appeal lies in their virtuosity, at least in part, so you might expect them to ably absorb the change.
Appropriately, the supports go to two local bands who, as well as playing tricksy, learned yet joyous music in the spirit of the headliners, have a yen for swapping elements. Members, in the case of Truckers Of Husk, who play every song off their forthcoming album Accelerated Learning; instruments, in the case of Islet, who have already released two LPs and played Spain’s Primavera festival. Both acts more than fill their remit, while appearing to have a great time.
Most people here are presumably seeing the new, ah, trimmed-down incarnation of Battles for the first time, and with Gloss Drop – Atlas’ followup – only released a few weeks ago. They might, therefore, be faced with a set entirely composed of unfamiliar material, as the band – for now, at least – are performing no Braxton-era songs at all. This means that there are no live vocals, and the songs which do feature singing employ big screen video footage of the guest vocalists playing their part. In order: Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead lends her plaintive pipes to Sweetie & Shag, which closes with an invigorating techno-rock rinseout; lead single Ice Cream further develops their ‘dance element’ by employing Chilean producer Matias Aguayo to do his thing of dense, heavily manipulated vocal loops; Gary Numan’s leathery presence on My Machines fits the track’s hint of grinding industrialism like a glove.
Elsewhere, the threesome are perfectly drilled and mathematically nailed-on, all lined up horizontally onstage to indicate their equal importance. (Drummer John Stanier, placed in the centre, inevitably takes a similar spot in your attention, though – partly through his ‘trademark’ ultra-high cymbal, partly through the gallons of sweat his possessed playing generates.) What they don’t have is a great deal of interaction, either with the crowd or each other – Ian Williams, formerly of Don Caballero, eventually offers some faintly generic patter about his surname indicating Welsh ancestry, but aside from that they just put their nose to the grindstone and beaver away.
The interest of a Battles live set, then, lies in seeing how they use their remarkable chops to reinvent their songs on the fly. This is done to some extent on the cowbell-heavy Dominican Fade; moreso on My Machines, whose intro sounds like something rescued from a 90s Richie Hawtin track; substantially on Wall Street, which has keyboard parts akin to the most genuinely ridiculous 70s prog; and, for an encore, a further nod to minimal techno on Sundome, the sort of breezy number that doesn’t go anywhere much and makes a virtue out of this. Much of the substantial crowd seem unsure if they ought to dance – it’s a gig, not a rave! – but Battles’ rhythmic sense makes the answer seem obvious to this observer.