I'd been hearing about Battles for a while. Last year, the band's Brooklyn neighbors in TV on the Radio — who made what I think was the best rock record of 2006 — were talking them up in interviews. I'd even heard that David Bowie was a Battles fan. Not bad for a group that didn't even have a full-length record out yet.
I saw Battles play a sold-out gig at New York City's Bowery Ballroom this past April, and they killed it. Although as rock shows go, it was admittedly a little strange: Most of the songs had no vocals, though occasionally, from behind his keyboard rack, Tyondai Braxton would shout or chant phrases into a microphone, which was run through pitch shifters and other devices so his vocals came out sounding something on "Atlas."
Battles looks like a normal quartet, but there are subtle differences. A drummer and bassist sometimes plays guitar, but then there are two guys who play both guitars and keyboards, often at the same time, with a technique that involves tapping the strings of their fretboards with one hand while fingering their keyboards with the other. Then the group uses digital looping devices, so a player can record a guitar phrase, loop it back, and then play a different line over it. So suddenly four musicians become five, or six, or seven.
Being a geek about this stuff, I could tell you about how Battles' members construct their songs by stitching together little segments they give absurd names to, like "Burkina Faso" or "Joey Buttafuoco." Or I could tell you that Braxton is the son of the great renegade jazz composer Anthony Braxton. Or I could tell you how some of the members dig old '70s prog-rockers like Yes and Rush and King Crimson, groups that — after being considered uncool for years — are now honorable indie-rock touchstones.
Judging from the crowd at the Bowery Ballroom in April, you clearly don't need to be a geek to appreciate Battles. I mean, normal-looking people were actually dancing to this music. But for all their geekiness, these guys rocked, and they do it in a way that really doesn't sound much like anyone else. The cover of their new CD is a kind of musical hall-of-mirrors, which is an apt metaphor for the sound. I think it's a cool place to hang out in.