My Battles with Autism Rock -- or Rautism -- at the Great American Music Hall
(Battles at GAMH Nov. 1, note the "roadie")
A Music Column by David Downs
Hot 2007 New York rock band Battles don't like being called Math Rock, and I don't blame them. After covering their live show Nov. 1 at the Great American Music Hall, the quartet's rightful place belongs in the genre of “Technician Rock” as part of a larger 21st-century movement called “Autism Rock,” or “Rautism.”
The rise of Rautism and the success of a band like Battles can be seen as a barometer for a society that's collectively swinging toward an austistic future. Let's start with the overlap between Battles and autism at their fundamental levels.
Also, Battles and autistic people have trouble communicating in words. One of the first signs you might have an autistic kid is they don't begin to babble by eight months. One the first signs that you might have Battles is no words at all; just precise, loud, weird percussion. A nonsensical verse may emerge during their stay, but its source will be a white male in his early thirties, well past the babbling stage.
Then, there's the inherent maleness of both Battles and autism. Autism is essentially a geneto-environmental disease of the white privileged male. Battles is four preppy East Coast white guys, exalted by guy fans, some of whom have girlfriends and brought them, and most of those girls prefer “guy music” like King Crimson to their gender's top sellers.
Furthermore, autism is based on faulty wiring between the emotional and learning/memory parts of the brain. Turns out emotions are integral to learning. Similarly, I popped Mirrored –- Battles' first LP after several previous EPs -- into my desk boombox earlier this year. I was impressed with the technical proficiency and overall turgidness of the record. But almost just as quickly, I forgot about it and never sought out another listen. I just never connected with it on an emotional level. It didn't feel very empathetic.
But as the year wore on, I heard Battles were taking off, going all over the world twice and coming back to town this November after their Slim's date. So I made sure to book an interview and show review, to investigate why I still couldn't connect to Mirrored.
The interview with guitaro-keyboardist Ian Williams went well. Very well-spoken and quick on his feet, he is the least reserved of the band members onstage. If anyone were not a Math Rocker, it would be him. But onstage at the Great American, Williams lost audience attention to a dude –- possibly a roadie -- fiddling with the amps and the knobs the entire show.
This was no roadie, though. The dude wore a nice shirt, and he came on with the band. Apparently, one of the band members' jobs is to crouch down with his back to the audience to fiddle with the gear and handle the eleven pedals' worth of digital delay effects, flanges, and god knows what else.
This isn't just a quirk of Battles' live show. It's a trend and a metaphor. From Radiohead to Girl Talk to every DJ since DJing began, we are witnessing the rise of noodling with a gadget over the urge to interact. Noodling alone now passes for interaction, and that's a step down Aspy Avenue.
The dude in Battles zoning out on the pedals embodies the archetype of the band. He is pivotal to the overall sound. He represents “Technician Rock” incarnate -- the overall turning away from the fan to the gear. In essence, Rautism.
In favor of Battles, I left the show impressed with their talent. Their fucking drummer is just brutal. Hats off to that guy. And I left charmed by Battles' fans, who are nice misanthropes who just want challenging music.
But to Battles' detriment, I've now found a way to connect with the band, and those connections are "doubt" and "fear." I simultaneously doubt the longevity of their particular act, and fear for an increasingly Rautistic future. I fear Battles is the mercury in America's autism barometer, and the mercury is rising.