Crystal Castles perform at the 9:30 Club

Toronto based Crystal Castles play their lo-fi chiptune sounds at DC's 9:30 Club.

WASHINGTON, October 19, 2012 —The way a band like Crystal Castles is publicly perceived, and the way their live set informs the audience how they perceive themselves can seem to be two entirely different things. The Toronto-based electronic noise band clearly envisions itself as just a band. But that doesn’t seem to be how their general audience and fan base tends to look at them. 

All this is understandable to a point. The electronic sounds they create, incorporating a touch of noise pop and 8-bit chiptune culture, when combined with Alice Glass’ vocals, seems to conjure up something genuinely surreal. It gives people the impression that Crystal Castles is some sort of rave/DJ set-up. In any event, these are the types of fans they attract to their show; and, through no fault of their own, that’s the type of show they are expected to perform.

What this means on a practical level is that Crystal Castles is more or less expected to perform throughout the night and into the wee hours of the morning. The way their songs are constructed, why shouldn’t they be able to extend them in the manner of an electronic-style jam band? After all, they create a club scene atmosphere with their sound. So why not play up that aspect even more?

Actually, taking that approach might render Crystal Castles less of a band in the process, and that’s clearly not a direction in which they wish to proceed. Despite what their sound might suggest, there’s a lot more depth to Crystal Castles than there is to the average DJ. But that simple fact often gets lost in the shuffle between what this band really is and what people think that it is.

Crystal Castles’ duo Alice Glass and Ethan Kath have crafted a fairly well-defined and elaborate set. Each song feels like it could go on forever, and certainly the crowd reacts as if that were going to happen. But each possesses a well-reasoned sonic arc that rises, floats, and terminates in a way that doesn’t fit the normal pattern of their genre. Since their songs certainly feel as if they were going to extend forever, they meld together, each into the other, so that when they do end they create a paradoxical impression of brevity. It’s this weird tension that easily kept their audience here on edge all night.

Another key feature of Crystal Castles is the effect of Alice Glass’ vocals. Not every song in the band’s set features Glass on vocals, or any vocals at all for that manner. But when they do involve glass, the band’s sound begins to sound like performance art rather than the singular talent of a soloist.

Everything Glass sings is distorted to some degree, to the point where her voice even sounds prerecorded, as if it were being played back on a loop. Her astonishing vocal range veers between a lo-fi hum, to 8-bit enhanced howl, to whatever she feels like doing at a given, specific moment. Put another way, Glass is seriously all over the place vocally. While this band is always intriguing at the very least, its performance becomes absolutely whenever deploys her distinctive vocal skills.

Her vocals suitably back up the soundscape she and Kath have created. It’s a deliberate mix of found sounds and electronic beats, weaving a dark and foreboding sonic fabric, which, like some of the better noise pop, conjures up an entirely nihilistic, totally 21st century atmosphere. 

Crystal Castles tosses in one final ingredient—potentially its most important one: their music is readily and immediately danceable. While the audience might feel it’s in their best interest to get lost in this sound for the entire night, Crystal Castles slightly over one-hour set seems geared toward the hope that their audience will stay focused on them for the duration of the set.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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