Imagine a mixed media art installation made with what seems like the parts of a computer CPU. Add a million pedals and loopers and a tilted eight-foot ride cymbal and you’ve got Battles’ live setup. Playing to a crowd of about four hundred head-bopping fans, Battles put on a tireless performance Friday at the Vic Theatre.
Never really a vocal band, Battles instead focuses on meticulous composition. In this way, the album versions of their songs are already very much aurally spectacular. Live, this translated to an even richer sound but enhanced further with the visuals of careful, energetic musicianship.
Spotlighted at center stage was ex-Helmet drummer John Stanier who stole the show with mesmerizing intensity. From primarily using the butts of his drumsticks, which were completely snarled three tracks into the show, to dissolving completely into the music with clenched teeth, Stanier’s iconic drumming is a marvel in itself, providing the punching rhythmic clarity that is the backbone of Battles’ material.
Battles’ complexity is conveyed by the massive amount of gear carefully sprawled across the stage. Multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams, of legendary Don Caballero fame, handles two angled keyboards at the same time and finger-taps on a guitar, all while keeping tabs on a table of controllers and two laptops. On the other side of Stanier is Dave Konopka, who masters a floor of pedals and loopers and provides some prominent riffs on guitar and bass.
As if the trio needs anything else to top off their technical eye candy, two large screens sit behind the set, showcasing synced videos (controlled by Williams) of guest vocalists singing the tracks as Battles play along.
To not seem too much like a science experiment, Battles’ live performance is also immensely quirky. Taking the cake is the idiosyncratic Williams, who suavely walks on stage chewing what must be a huge wad of gum. As soon as the first track, Williams gets into the groove and strikes jerky, angular dance moves while effortlessly playing two keyboards at once. Williams playfully slides his hands down the keyboards while swinging his legs and skillfully accompanying his keyboard riffs with spidery fingerboard mastery.
Standouts of the night include a fast-paced, energetic “Wall Street,” in which Stanier pegged the most impressive drum fill of the night, and the Gloss Drop single “Ice Cream,” which slowly built up with interspersed drum hits and showcased Williams’ skillful opening riff on guitar. Special renditions of “Tonto” and “Atlas,” tracks off the band’s debut Mirrored, featured different, albeit not as amazing as their original, arrangements sans Tyondai Braxton, the band’s former frontman who left in 2010. Between tracks the group continued with experimentation and improvisation (along with somewhat hilarious giant hand waves for cues) with both video effects and loops to bleed tracks together.
By the end of the night, the members, with their thoroughly sweat-drenched clothes, humbly bowed and waved to the audience after performing “Sundome,” the closing track off of Gloss Drop, leaving the audience to figure out for themselves what exactly just happened.