all words: Andy Johnson
all photos: Steve Jeter
One of the reasons why Halloween is so much fun is that you are able to portray a different side of yourself for a night. A shy girl can become a sultry hellcat and a repressed data drone can let his freak flag fly without judgment from the world at large. Even if you are someone who generally half-asses the holiday, it’s always fun to go out and see what weird costumes people can think up.
I’m a sucker for a well-done video game costume – kudos to the Solid Snakes and the Link & Zeldas of the District – but I also enjoy the creative folks who look to the small screen for inspiration. I saw a perfect Dexter Morgan, the entire Lannister clan from Game of Thrones (albeit with a plush imp), a legit Duffman, and — my personal favorite — an intoxicated rube in a genuine Barney the Dinosaur costume who may have been the only individual at the Newseum on Saturday with an ass larger than Questlove’s.
There are, of course, the uncreative who don the easy costumes. I’m talking about the lazy #OWS protesters, the “too-soon?” Zombie Gaddafis, anything Charlie Sheen or Steve Jobs related, Foxy Knoxy and/or Casey Anthony, and, of course, the taciturn protagonist from Drive, a costume I briefly considered until I realized this would be the disguise for every mid-twentysomething cinephile who hoped to convince a sloshed Daisy Buchanan into being her Ryan Gosling for that evening. Remember ladies: there is a viable alternative to the Goz.
I’ve never attended a concert on a Halloween weekend before. Considering I was seeing two experimental rock bands, I figured there’d be some weird people out on Devil’s Night. I was disappointed that only a quarter of the 9:30 Club attendees were in some sort of getup, ranging in intensity from casual cowboy hats, superheroes, and one guy who had the gumption to go as either a stale Heath Ledger’s Joker or a terrible Krusty the Clown. It’s nearly 2012, I don’t want to see any Jokers or Brett Favres or Sarah Palins ever again. Please, just let them rest in peace.
Even though I was not impressed with the costumes, I was captivated by the three petite Japanese women playing music that – if you’ll indulge my sexist Western cultural stereotypes for a hot second – sounds like it should be created by geeky majors at Julliard or, at the very least, dudes with mutton chops.
Nisennenmondai, named after the Japanese translation of the Y2k bug (Remember that? Me either) hail from Tokyo, and those lucky enough to hit up the 9:30 Club early were witnesses to a mixture of Boredoms’ psychedelic noise, Sonic Youth’s unpredictable ferocity, and Krautrock’s focus on repetition. As I gazed up toward the 9:30 Club balcony, I noticed mouths agape watching drummer Sayaka Himeno bang her drums on “Mirrorball,” her ponytail flaring around like it were a mutated third arm responsible for nailing the high-hat. Considering they’ve been together for over a decade now, the ladies were locked in tight, as guitarist Masako Takada contributed spacey distortion to complement Yuri Zaikawa’s basslines that could have been plunked out of any song on a Factory Record’s compilation.
Could you dance to it? Sure. Could you found these sounds off-putting? Of course. And could you just sit there in bizarre wonderment about that these women could make such catchy music, a little upset at yourself that you almost considered skipping this vowel-heavy act in favor of watching the first half of the Cowboys/Eagles blowout? Absolutely. So that’s why you should always try to catch an opening act, especially those from far off lands, because every once in a while, they might just knock your socks off.
Having seen Battles before, I was curious to see how they would respond to the departure of singer Tyondai Braxton. The remaining members – multi-instrumentalists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka and drummer/juggernaut John Stanier – are all talented, but Braxton’s loss upsets the band’s dynamic. Joy Division managed to carry on after Ian Curtis died, but I somehow doubt that a behemoth like Stanier will be able to simultaneously drum and sing. To make up for this deficiency, their latest album Gloss Drop relies heavily on guest vocalists. This approach works in the studio, but you obviously can’t trot out Gary Numan for every performance.
After tearing into “Africastle,” my question was answered when the coy face of Blonde Redhead’s Kazo Makino appeared on video screens and her avatar “sang” along to “Sweetie & Shag.” I admit this is a novel approach to solve the conundrum, but it also felt a bit forced. However, my opinion would change as Battles bent Makino’s singing and visage upon itself, crafting an entirely new version of the song (Perhaps even improvised? I’d like to know how much was scripted and how much was created on the fly) that sounded far filthier than the studio version.
The rolling introduction of “Atlas” unleashed the second audible “Oh fuck!” moment of the evening (the first being the elongated spasm that was Nisennenmondai’s set), as the band pumped in the song’s gibberish vocals. Williams, donned in a terrible mustache, swayed back and forth as he alternated finger-tapping his guitar and draping his free hand across the keyboards as Konopka effectively switched between bass and guitar duties throughout the night.
But as proficient as these men are, Battles’ Megatron is clearly Stanier, who is a maniac, a beast, a berserker, or whatever Shift-F7 word I can cull from MS-Word’s thesaurus to express to you this man’s superhuman drumming prowess. To my friends at the Washington Post, how could you possibly omit Steiner from your best drummers list? The only thing that nastier than Stanier’s performance on Sunday was his shirt, soaked in hard-earned perspiration. Yes, he still puts his ride cymbal up as high as possible, and yes it’s still awesome every time he leaps out of his seat to strike it.
Sure enough, Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan were beamed in for their guest appearances. “Ice Cream,” the band’s exciting single and arguably most pop-friendly song, killed it as the costumed men & women went gorillas, but I can’t say the same for “My Machines,” an inorganic dud that wasn’t helped by Numan’s ghoulish appearance and caterwauling. The set-closing “Futura” was an especially hype extended performance of the one of the band’s finest and most technically-demanding songs.
During the break, Williams came out, expressed his admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement, gave some love to a Shark Boy in the audience, discussed the perks of owning a mustache, and informed the anxious crowd that his mother was watching. The droning encore of “Sundome” was stunted without Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye to add a little weirdness to it, and I call into question why the band would end the night on a lower-energy track. It would have made a lot more sense to switch “Futura” and “Sundome” to ensure that everyone left the club satisfied.
While I had a great time, I admit that Battles are not for everyone. It’s not easily digestible music. You will not be hearing Nisennenmondai on DC101. But that’s all right, because there are 364 other days of the year to listen to pop music. That’s why I’m glad that on this one night, the freaks came out to play.