By Jhoni Jackson
Most electro shows can mesmerize a crowd — repetitive beats, undulating synths and a well-choreographed supplement of strobes and lasers make it easy. But the glitch jams of the Canadian-bred duo Crystal Castles, however, can trigger more.
Late last year, Ethan Kath (the beats-making half of the act) told the Independent that cops were summoned at a Brighton, UK performance. The culprit? His rowdier counterpart — Alice Glass, the jet-black bowl-cut sporting frontwoman for the outfit. Kath said that after the set, the two had to make a quick escape to avoid a potential arrest.
Just a couple of months earlier, the band played an Inglewood, Calif. festival that was shut down before even beginning (according to the fest’s website, the L.A. county fire department deemed the conditions, which included fans leaping from the balcony, unsafe). The chaos wasn’t necessarily a result of Crystal Castles, but Glass was reportedly kicked in the noggin by riot police during the evacuation fiasco. Less than 30 days prior, she spit at and punched a concertgoer who she said groped her while she crowd surfed, according to NME.
But those incidents went down before the follow-up to their self-titled debut, the subtly named II (and sometimes just plainly called Crystal Castles) that’s decidedly different from its predecessor.
Crystal Castles’ first work is an irresistible, creative and cohesive addition to the indie electro genre, full of danceable arcade-style beeps and blips made even cooler by Glass’ intermittent raspy shouts. The fuzziness oozes indie cred and the melodies exude a soft-spoken creepiness that distances the band from formulaic dance-pop. Samples from Drinking Electricity, Van She and Death from Above 1979, even if not incorporated into a tune but looped at the tail end as an afterthought, put the album into context. Songs derived from a split with HEALTH that made the cut further situate the band among acts now considered peers.
But this sophomore LP positions the band in a neighboring but entirely new territory — techno. For most electronic music fans, it’s a welcome foray, but for the typical indie dance-pop lover, the stretch is usually a misstep.
The album opens with distortion and a creepy loop to match sonically blurred lyrics: “I’ll make you forget/With the taste of lambskin/The bounty is yours/It tastes like medicine.” But a familiar melody kicks in seconds later, and it marks the beginning of a take on techno that, if it weren’t for Glass’ vocals and a gloomy underpinning, would lack innovation altogether. “Celestica” goes even further, adhering to more traditional techno tricks by filtering Glass’ vocals, which never reach a shout, with a watery effect. The words are dark and strange in trademark fashion until the chorus, when Glass sings “Follow me to nowhere/Woven with the utmost care.” The realization that the track could live comfortably on the soundtrack to a ‘90s rave becomes undeniable, and the aforementioned cool-factor just isn’t there.
“Baptism” follows suit, patterning the digi-beeps that were inventive on their debut into a faux-sporadic form that could have come from any techno artist. But fortunately, Glass interrupts the glow stick party with an oddly disturbing lo-fi announcement: “This is your baptism/And you can’t forgive ‘em.” And though the melody never strays too far from the rave, the intrusion is interesting, unexpected and much appreciated.
The duo’s shift to techno is risky and unprecedented, but the move isn’t shaky — their footing is as sure as it was on their debut. Techno-weary listeners might be hesitant, but Kath still has an ear for superglue hooks that demand long-term rumination, even in the head of the hippest elitist. The insanity that overcomes Glass onstage — the fervor that both energizes an antagonizes Crystal Castles’ audiences — won’t be thwarted by a set list based on II. Maybe only one of Glass’ high-top Chuck Taylors is fully situated in the electro realm, but at least she’s still wearing them.
Crystal Castles play The Masquerade on September 8.