Wednesday April 15th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
Battles, Helms, Masarati, & Polaris Mine

Battles Helms Masarati Polaris Mine [more]

My quest to discover "The Boston Sound" has led me through countless web pages of nameless local bands. While The Pixies and Mission of Burma will always be on the tip of my tongue, bands like Karate and The Ivory Coast have done much to carry the Boston banner in recent years. I'm, of course, never satisfied with what is known, so I dig deeper. Some weeks back, Polaris Mine became the fruit of my hunt. Recorded, the band is massive. The music is complex and changing, yet hooky. Female vocals soften the edges, but it is a ploy. Just enough to get you to invite the vampire in. Enthralled, I looked up the band's next show, contacted them about an interview, and was summarily dismissed. I guess Polaris Mine has all the friends and fans they need.

But worry not, good is to come of this story. For Polaris Mine's next show was to be with another nameless band denoted by, what will surely become a ubiquitous byline, "features members of Don Caballero and Helmet." With Polaris Mine's blessing or no, I decided I'd go and discover the whatfors of this other band, named "Battles."

At a little before 9pm I let myself through the closed club door and into Polaris Mine's soundcheck. More volume I have not heard. Abby (the soundwoman of unknown surname) guided the band through the normal paces resulting in the normal volume shifts. Of course, to the untrained ear, it seemed as though everything was louder than everything else. I put in my earplugs and slumped against the wall to play Scrabble against my Palm Pilot.

Despite my intentions to remain invisible and wealthy, my conscience wasn't so included. Once the doors opened and patrons began entering the club I slipped out to see the doorman. After having the doorman check Polaris Mine's guestlist for my name – just in case – I emptied my pockets of all bills and change to arrive at the exact required sum of $9. With both conscience and wallet lighter, I returned to my spot on the side of the stage and my game.

At some point well after the posted start time, the trio of Polaris Mine took the stage. Despite my best attempts at holding a grudge, I was excited to see how the trio's music might translate to a live setting. I was particularly curious to see if the recorded pop hooks could establish themselves through the damaging decibels the soundcheck hinted at. By the end of the band's set I realized that issue was paltry compared to the more serious one I hadn't known enough to ponder earlier: "Does this band know who they are?"

On the limited mp3s the band's presents on its website, bassist Jordyn Bonds's vocals are a gateway drug to the band's more complex and dangerous inner workings. Unfortunately that is only in the best of moments, more often they are a sing-songy affront to it. While Bonds sings, guitarist Joel Roston plays simple barred chords and songs barrel forward, happy and naive. When Roston sings, the band's songs are dark and complex. Of course it's combining the two that earns the accolades and when the band was successful, they recalled the best moments of Unrest. In those moments, I loved Polaris Mine.

However, those times were few. More often than not, the band dimly attempted to simply glue two juxtaposing elements together. While Yes may have been successful with this approach, Polaris Mine wasn't. In many of Polaris Mine's songs, angular pummeling choruses followed light-hearted verses in a cycle that only repeated itself. Even more sinister were Roston's off-kilter guitar retorts which were often inserted between each of Bonds's vocal phrasing. Although Roston is an apt, if not gifted, guitarist, these two contradictory elements only detract from one another. Moreover, if I had not seen the two players interact socially during soundcheck, this aural argument would have led me to assume each player hated the other.

Although Bonds admitted the performance suffered from her noticeably short voice (an abnormality of the evening due to illness or some other factor), Polaris Mine's schizophrenia was a much bigger detriment to the set. Luckily, the distinction between genius and madness is thin, and the sonic psychosis that plagues Polaris Mine today could very well become their brilliance tomorrow.

Those who are frequent readers of my show accounts know my propensity for grand statements and generalizations. I'm sure if I were to read back I'd find a proclamation that you should never trust a band whose drummer sets up at the front of the stage – it's pretentious and they're just asking for trouble, right? Athens Georgia's Maserati may be a bit of both, but thankfully, there's more to this story.

It's true that the unique stage setup did require the sound crew to remove the monitors from the front of the stage and reroute countless cords just to suit the whims of the little known band. It's also true that drummer Phil Horan did spend way too much time configuring the setup of his kit. Any drummer who moves his or her ride more than three times is simply a hair-splitting prima donna, right? Furthermore some might have thought it ostentatious when the band placed their own lights about the floor of the stage thus giving the players' feet a green glow. And when the band did begin playing, and guitarist Coley Dennis began by striking the headstock of his guitar with a cotton-tipped mallet, more than a few might have thought it portentous. Of course, as you have invariably guessed by now, all of these elements are not affectation; it's merely Maserati's way.

This instrumental foursome consists of guitarists Coley Dennis and Matt Cherry, along with bassist Steve Scarborough, who hid behind Phil Horan's substantial drum kit. I'm not good with names, but I understand many of these players may be well known about the Athens scene. While the city may be known (as of late) for their twee and lo-fi, psychedelic indie pop bands, Maserati seems to have little in common with that set of their Kindercore labelmates. Instead the band offered five expressive songs that remained safely inside the space rock genre.

Of course, anyone who was close enough to have seen the band's stage setup would have guessed their forte might be textures and atmospheres. After all, both guitarists utilized substantial pedal boards, while Dennis's even included three of the same digital delay pedal. Furthermore, those stereo delay pedals fed separate amplifiers to creating pulsing, panning, echoing effects.

Often, space rock is a genre that audiences either adore or detest. Fans seem to find no fault with any of the expansive, formless pieces comprised of gentle washes and little composition. Those with shorter attention spans, or those who require structure in their music, are apt to discount the genre as droning background noise. Luckily for all, Maserati is skilled at creating instrumental soundscapes that are full of life and energy, but with enough subtle textures to satisfy both camps. Are there hints of prog-rock or math-rock? Probably, but to label their music as such only muddies the water needlessly. Besides, the murky bands that followed would soon sully all genre distinctions.

The first assault on categorization would come from Helms. Helms is a band dominated by Sean McCarthy's wheedling finger taps, and unsupported by Tina Helms's sparse bass and Dan McCarthy's often-rhythmless percussion. While the bass tends to introduce each measure with a single decaying note, percussion lies dormant except for a single high hat keeping time and the soft flourishes that generally end each phrase. When Sean McCarthy's voice was audible, it came across as an intimate, spoken whisper. Unfortunately, that nuance was generally under the volume of his winding, repetitive, mutating guitar lines.

Sean McCarthy is a genuinely unique guitarist for any genre, and especially so for indie rock. Not merely does his inimitable, rhythmic style define Helms's songs, but his two-handed finger taps even forces a visual variety to the band's live performance. In much the same way that Steve Albini's playing requires him to adjust his stance, Sean McCarthy's craft requires him to wear his guitar nearly perpendicular to the ground. When playing, his expressions are like one of an athlete "in the zone" – although focused, he seems surprised and thrilled at his performance. When concentrating intently, Sean McCarthy's mouth gapes, his tongue hangs out, and the Jordon-esque sports analogy is complete. Also, like a great athlete, he is fun to watch.

With so much emphasis placed on Sean McCarthy, it seems obvious that the band is unbelievably misnamed. The band's namesake, Tina Helms, just doesn't play a substantial role. In fact, during the performance, Helms often stood motionless, her left hand muting idle bass strings. It is Sean McCarthy's deconstructionist virtuosity that commands the audience's attention and defines the band's sound – Tina Helms has absolutely nothing to do with it.

The band played a short set of hurried songs plagued by technical difficulties and lengthy tuning interludes. While this informality seemed to have rattled Sean McCarthy a bit, one would think the band would embrace it. Typically when a band brings a table lamp to the stage, and asks all house lights to be cut, they are trying to recreate the feeling of either their practice space or a living room jam with friends. The deep glow of the bulb yellowed by an old dented shade conveys an assured informality that unifies the band and audience. Or at least it should. Instead Sean McCarthy seemed embarrassed and rushed when problems arose, and the bond between willing audience and performer was never fully established.

In addition to the band's trying musical post-modern angularisms, artistic bands with vision are already seen as irreproachable. Those two strikes are hard to overcome, when a third distraction is added due a disjointed performance from a frazzled frontman, connecting to the audience becomes an insurmountable task – one which can't be resolved by plugging in a lamp from grandma's end table.

While Helms is a band that defies rigid classification, it does have predecessors from whom they can be shown to have sprung. Battles, however, is alone in musical delineation. Describing the painfully modern compositions of this newly formed super group is a daunting task. Waves of warm analog synth cascading over effected guitar and rapid drumming create a soundtrack for a 1am subway ride. But here is where it gets weird. All the tools are pulled from a 1984 Atari game. Nothing new is introduced, but everything is recombined into compositions that are wholly organic and flowing while simultaneously being held rigid by repeating guitar or keyboard lines. Songs seem to stretch into improvisational meanderings, but the reality is they have been constructed and planned from the start. But how?

The biggest clue to understanding this puzzle comes from keyboardist, computer controller, and guitarist Ian Williams of math-rock kings Don Caballero. With Don Caballero, Williams introduced audiences to his winding guitar work, and the effects of his memory man pedals used to construct painfully tight and precise compositions of forced odd timings and quick-as-hell changes. The rigid confines of that effort are completely blown away by Battles. In Battles, anything is fair game, anything can happen, and, seemingly, everything does.

In Battles, Ian Williams has also taken his musical mastery and showmanship to another, here-to-fore unknown, level. It was impossible not to be floored when Williams would tap out complex "vocal" lines upon the fret board of his guitar with his left hand, while simultaneously playing the same line on his keyboard with his right hand. Sit back and think about that for a bit. Think about both the manual dexterity and the mental concentration required to play two disparate instruments simultaneously. Remember these aren't simple rhythms of held notes – these are a hodgepodge collection of quicker rests and quickest 32nd notes. I was more than impressed.

If Battles had been Ian Williams alone (much as Helms can be attributed to Sean McCarthy), it would be a great band. Incredulously, Williams is surrounded by musicians of similarly immense talent. The most noticeable of which is perennial solo artist Tyondai Braxton who carries the same keyboard and guitar duties as Williams. While his solo work often includes substantial vocal work (processed as to be entirely unrecognizable), with Battles, Braxton's vocalizations were limited to a few moments of amazing beat box. Braxton's guitar work contrasted Williams' robotic and mechanical certainty with a style much more soulful and organic. The distinction is subtler than it might seem, as both are speaking the same language and painting the same picture.

Battles' final guitar is provided by Dave Konopka (of Diamonds, and formerly Lynx). His guitar work is cleaner, with a more definite bite. It is, however, used sparingly. Because Battles' songs typically begin with a single guitar or keyboard line and then slowly grow denser, Konopka was usually the final piece added to songs. When waiting for his introduction, Konopka stood stiffly in attention. Dressed in a fitting uniform of black shoes, black pants, black shirt, and white belt, he appeared as a no-nonsense military man – a reputation repudiated when Konopka was later seen howling into his guitar pickups in a moment of constructed chaos.

Drummer John Stanier (of Helmet and Mike Patton's Tomahawk) completed the musical dream team. Unlike the frenetic drumming of Don Caballero's Damon Che, Stanier played a small kit with similar precision but lessoned visibility. A single cymbal was hoisted three feet above Stanier's head, creating a constant tension – when would he hit it, and how?

Although Battles played a long set, it just didn't seem long enough for a band presenting so much to be understood and analyzed. This was particularly troublesome because the band's music was actually contrary to that goal. Instead, it demanded to be simply experienced. To be taken in, not to be picked apart and cataloged. This is a band you're going to want to, and need to, immerse yourself in many times.

While Battles may not be exactly local to my new Boston home, they were ultimately the fantastic find that resulted from a hunt for such, and I'm going to hold on to them. Today you may have to dig deep for information about the band – they don't yet have an album, or even a website – but its easy to imagine a time when they are the darlings of indie press. It won't be long before my own obsequious words are joined by the throngs looking for the next new sound. Battles has it now, so come and get it while it's hot.