Anything a musician plays — piano, tuba, harmonium — is a machine. But when we talk about musicians teaming up with machines, we are usually trying to describe an arrangement where humans play a known instrument as well as a digital device, whether it's a delay pedal or a laptop.
On Sunday, on the second day of the 12th FYF Fest, an L.A. occasion that has grown way past the borders of its first home, people and machines were comfortable partners in a clutch of different arrangements. And more than just illustrating how familiar musicians are with several generations of digital technology, these bands further established the fact that genre isn't just fading from view — it's being forgotten.
For most listeners now, there is no experience of flipping through rack dividers in record stores. Fans hear tracks online before they see names. Genre can still reflect a philosophy — punk is still being submitted to Talmudic annotation — or describe a beat pattern, like ska, but for much music, genre is simply the hangover of widget selling in physical spaces.
New York's Battles played around dusk on the Trees Stage, a patch of lawn surrounded by trees by the L.A. Coliseum. Once a quartet, they shrank into a trio in 2010 when singer and multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton left. Since then, the band has recorded guest vocalists, whose vocals they then trigger live, as samples. (Other than Braxton, nobody has ever sung live with the band.) For their new album, "La Di Da Di," they abandoned the idea of creating new vocals and stuck to what the band can create with a drummer — John Stanier, who hits as hard and evenly as any drummer alive — guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams, and bassist and guitarist Dave Konopka.
Battles play "The Yabba" as part of an NYC Live Session for VEVO. (BattlesVEVO)
Their main machine allies are Konopka's digital Echoplexes, fairly limited looping pedals from the '90s meant to mimic the original model that created echo with loops of magnetic tape. Williams uses the almost universal music software, Ableton, which he triggers from a laptop. Without breaking open a user's manual, a summary: Konopka plays bass and guitar patterns into his pedals, and then tries manually to set them to sync up with the material Williams has triggered in Ableton. Once those patterns are established, Williams is free (momentarily) to play guitar or keyboard, and Konopka can play his bass or guitar, just like in olden times.
Stanier holds the strands together with brutal but carefully trimmed drum beats. But there is no technical safeguard that guarantees that their machines will permanently lock motifs into the same tempo.
These layers of loops need to be lined up by ear every few bars, "like a DJ beat juggling," Williams said, after the show. "There's drift."
Battles shows involve multiple small adjustments, with Williams and Konopka starting and re-starting patterns, editing on the fly. The result is a rolling series of moiré patterns, with time signatures rubbing against each other.
The pleasure in watching their set on Sunday was sort of like watching loud Jenga. How high could the band build their rhythmic blocks until something fell out of sync and the band had to leap to correct it before the composition toppled? The music could be dance music as easily as rock if the sounds were processed enough, and often they are. Battles is nominally "rock," because what you see on stage is a drummer and two guys playing guitars, but there is more commonality between Battles and minimal techno or, well, a DJ beat juggling than any traditional guitar-based rock band.
L.A.'s own Health takes the confusion further. The quartet uses a battery of processing and looping pedals, as well as a laptop that now holds some information for songs they used to build live. (Ableton is also the software that member Jupiter Keyes uses to trigger pre-established sequences.) But their way of playing attacks the idea that anything is supposed to sound like anything, period.
They opened with a version of "Courtship," from their 2007 debut album, which has been melted and transformed into an intro for their current tour, which began only recently. Drummer BJ Miller laid down a quick switchback pattern of furious, tom-tom pounding and band members John Famiglietti, Jake Duzsik and Keyes all screamed into microphones, their voices severely processed.
Close your eyes: machines. Maybe guitars feeding back? Amplified belt sanders? Open your eyes, and you saw three guys singing into microphones. I thought instantly of the moment when my friend Nikola introduced me to the band, which he loves, and described his frustration when he saw a picture of them.
"I wanted them to be robots with a girl singer. They're just guys, though. Regular humans."
Duzsik's singing voice is, in context, surprisingly soft and high and arguably feminine. It is one of the stubbornly human elements in the middle of all the distorting and replicating. On new songs like "Stonefist," his voice recalls a modified version of Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan, sedated but still emotionally present. One of the best see-saw methods that Health uses is coupling a moment of furious digital noise with one of the band members — all of the band, other than Miller, play a variety of machines — pounding a floor tom with drum sticks. (Almost like a very noisy pit crew, they quickly move the floor toms back and forth across the stage depending on the song, helpfully setting each other up.) The floor tom is about as close to a pre-modern instrument as you can get; Health has no pretensions to becoming entirely post-human with their gear. Their set was close to seamless. If you need to find a genre for them, godspeed.
Health's video for "Stonefist" from the album "Death Magic." (YOUWILLLOVEEACHOTHER)
A man with only machines, Josh Leary, under the name Evian Christ, played one of Sunday night's closing sets in the L.A. Sports Arena, the single indoor space at FYF. He used three CDJ players, an Octatrack performance sampler and a delay pedal. (No laptops on stage for Leary — "too ugly," he said.) None of this gear was visible through the cloud cover of theatrical stage smoke. Leary was silhouetted by his light show, a gently building series of white light projections that beamed through square mesh screens and blanketed the crowd. His music is to dance music what Steven Spielberg's early movies were to John Ford and Sergio Leone: shot through with references to decades of British and American sources but mulched to the point that knowing the originals is besides the point, except for trainspotters.
Evian Christ's "Propeller" from the "Waterfall" EP. (#EvianChrist)
The early half of his set was like one long Viking fanfare, synthetic sounds shaking the darkened sports venue for almost 15 minutes. He finally released the tension with "Propeller," a track from 2014's "Waterfall" EP. A trilling, high synthesizer sound wobbled over what sounds like a bassbin swinging from a derrick crane, punctuated by samples of low grumbles and sharp intakes of breath. It felt sort of like an early '90s Dr. Dre track irradiated and then released from isolation into a hostile world.
The humanity here was the sensibility, as Leary's music is so open to influence that a five-second patch of hip-hop (sort of) will blend into the airy synth sound of an '80s rave track and references will rumble on until you're not sure you're hearing dance music or music about dance music. It's not an unpleasant question.
An even better example of Leary's sense of creative destruction was his DJ set at an after-party held by Warp Records at the Underpass, an on-again, off-again underground L.A. club. Leary filled one very small room with smoke and alternated different colored lights with interrogation-level strobe lights. The perverse effect was to immobilize you while making you listen to dance music. There was no way to swing an arm without hitting someone you couldn't see. Over much more frenetic material than he played at FYF, Leary mangled snippets of Kylie Minogue's "Slow" and Ultra Naté's "Free," songs many might describe as "normal" dance music, which this mélange was not.
The best repurposing of machines came not from the musicians but the dancers at the Underpass. Confronted with the smoke and strobes but determined to circulate, people just held up their iPhones, using the flashlight function. They carried on like cheerful miners, moving happily but without any single purpose.