REVIEW: Battles bring controlled chaos to the Independent

Battles, John Stanier, Ian Williams

Battles perform at The Independent in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 2019. Sean Liming/Staff.

SAN FRANCISCO — One of the most basic oppositions in our lives is the one between chaos and control. New York duo Battles, comprised of guitarist-keyboardist Ian Williams of the influential instrumental group Don Caballero, and John Stainer, drummer from grunge legends Helmet, embody this juxtaposition musically. Williams uses an arsenal of gear to set off unpredictable musical explosions while Stainer produces powerful and precise percussion that serves as both a road map and a dance floor in the musical storm.

The crowd at the Independent Tuesday night was clearly eager for the duality.

The duo was in San Francisco on the first leg of its North American tour in support of its latest album, Juice B Crypts. The band kicked off with the album’s first single, “Fort Greene Park.” Williams began the song with a sampled phrase of music that seemed to skip and glitch while still being groovy enough to get heads nodding in unison. Eventually Stainer joined with a huge drum beat that managed to bring Williams’ sonic blur into focus.

Williams provided the melody via a stuttering lead guitar line. Dressed like a grad student, bespectacled and wearing bright orange shoes, he managed to strike some awkward dance moves while playing guitar with one hand, keyboard with the other, and operating a complex series of foot switches and looping pedals.

Battles, John Stanier

Battles perform at The Independent in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 2019.

Stainer’s drumming on “A Loop So Nice..,” the second song of the night, involved fast and intricate hi-hat syncopations while Williams added some funky keyboard sounds. During the second half of the song, the vocals recorded for the album by Xenia Rubinos were sampled by Williams. The sound quality of the sampled vocals was compromised and consequently they failed to stand out in the mix. This was the case with many of the album’s coolest collaborations like “IMZ,” which featured vocals from hip-hop artists Shabazz Palaces, and the awesome psychedelic salsa of “Titanium 2 Step,” with vocals from Sal Principato of the ’80s no-wave band Liquid Liquid.

The songs blended together, often with the duo shifting seamlessly from one lumbering groove to another. The music was impossible to pigeonhole as it borrows from and hybridizes so many different genres, from jazz to hip-hop to noise rock to experimental sound washes. The instruments seemed to shift roles as well, with Williams’ guitar conjuring keyboard-like swells and Stainer triggering musical snatches with a sampler attached to his drum kit. 

During both parts of “Last Supper on Shasta,” also from the new album, the band was joined live by Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. Garbus’ powerful screams filled the venue while Williams and Stainer played with the song’s quirky, vaguely new-wave sounding loops and musical phrases. 

Battles, Ian Williams

Battles perform at The Independent in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 2019.

The crowd favorite was clearly the duo’s biggest hit: “Atlas,” from 2007 album Mirrored. Stainer, dressed in a blue button-down shirt and looking like your dad’s friend who drives a Porsche, delivered the song’s signature tom-heavy percussion while Williams somehow managed to produce the elaborate arrangement using the entire array of musical equipment. 

After a 90-minute set the crowd was still stomping and cheering for an encore, even after the Indy’s house lights came on. Eventually Williams emerged from backstage and told everyone to go home before giving everyone in the front row a high five and sitting down at the front of the stage and talking to fans. The band clearly left the crowd wanting more. 

The evening began with a set from Philadelphia experimental rock band Palm.

The quartet warmed up the crowd with its idiomatic sound that featured sweet vocal harmonies, interesting instrumentation and weird time signatures. The band’s two vocalists, Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt, produced ethereal harmonies that blended nicely with one another and the somewhat strange wall of sound being conjured by the rest of the band.

Palms, Eve Alpert, Kasra Kurt, Gerasimos Livitsanos, Hugo Stanley

Palm performs at The Independent in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 2019.

Many of the songs were in three, meaning that the main riff repeated every three beats rather than every four—which is much more common in rock and roll. There were some other time signatures which couldn’t be identified at all. 

Palm gave off a casual vibe even as it played some very difficult music. While the strange time signatures made determining where each musical phrase began and ended, the steady eighth notes and remarkable grooving power of drummer Hugo Stanley and bassist Gerasimos Livitsanos made it easy to feel the beat and to nod your head along.

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