San Francisco Bathhouse
September 22 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

“PEOPLE won’t be people when they hear this sound”. Most people probably wouldn’t recognise this as the opening line of Battles’ criminally catchy hit ‘Atlas’, but those who were there at the sold-out gig in Wellington probably lost their sense of being while being pummeled by the aural overload dished up. This was loud – a controlled cacophony made by four highly talented musicians, who had the audience by the eardrums as they continually built and released the tension. It was exhausting stuff, a classic gig, by a band who is justifying all the hype.

Surf City opened the night’s proceedings having just been awarded Burger Fuel’s BARF prize – a hearty congratulations. I had seen them perform a couple years back as Kill Surf City when I was up in Auckland at a gig at which they clearly didn’t want to be at, so hadn’t had the best opinion of their live performance. However this performance was pretty solid. It was admittedly very Flying Nun (cough The Clean), with a nice melodic sense drenched in feedback. Some of the jams could perhaps either have been shortened, or built up the tautness a bit better, but overall I was pretty impressed with Surf City, and they reversed my previous view of their live-show. I must admit though, I was unfortunately a little bit distracted during their performance because I didn’t know what to do with my hands when standing and watching (surely I’m not the only person who feels like that sometimes???). Buying a beer only half-solved that problem.

The set-up for Battles to take the stage was understandably rather elaborate. Of early interest was the high cymbal set-up which dominated the front centre of the stage (it was great to see the drummer right up the front, especially since drummer John Stanier was so damn good). Also, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one, people were curious to see just how they made their sounds. And as the crowd witnessed, this was first and foremost a band who know how to play live. Their enthusiasm, and mastery of their instruments was filtered through some electronic trickery, and the crowd was won.

They mainly focused on material from their killer ‘07 album Mirrored, which admittedly was more focused and more controlled than some of the previous EPs (though I must say I was proud of buying the excellent EP C/B EP before Real Groovy knew what it had on its hands and chucked it in the bargain bin – suckers). It managed to retain an improvised feel, but you could tell how elaborately constructed it all was (I guess if you had to classify this band, math rock would be the two words you’d use – however, they seem to defy any sort of easy or lazy classification). A particular highlight was ‘Tonto’ a song in which they beautifully messed around with texture and pace. ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Race: In’ were also wonderful. However, as far as most people were concerned it was ‘Atlas’ that proved to be the set standout – the song which has deservedly managed to move from the prog/indie fans to general pop acceptance. Its stonking T-Rex-meets-Marilyn Manson riff and menacingly coiled tension got the crowd to feel like they were epically dancing in slow-motion (or at least I did). This was a brilliant gig – a totally unique live performance, and the sound of one of the best bands around at the moment.