The Show: Crystal Castles and HEALTH
Where: Roseland Ballroom, NYC, October 3
It's often been said that Crystal Castles makes 8-bit music; Nintendo dreamscapes that turn cold. On MySpace, they choose to define themselves as "thrash," though elsewhere they're referred to as "noise," a term that seems dismissive and vague. They make patterns from snippets, symphonies with a staple gun: a song from their upcoming LP sounds as if made of a fire extinguisher, car alarms, bullets and a child chasing a butterfly.
Noise doesn't allow for range, but "Suffocation" is a whisper in a tunnel; "Black Panther," like many others, is a humming disco track with vocals that burrow instead of carry, a glitchy VHS tape threaded through the radio's dance station. Giorgio Moroder clearly had heavy influence on them, but then again, so did plastic, and so did the microwave. To a stranger, every one of their productions reads similar: bleeps and blips; looping rhythms that carry off with the wind or bounce around the head before laying down for a nap. For everything that goes into it, Crystal Castles make songs that sound like slamming doors and secrets being kept.
Crystal Castles make songs that sound like slamming doors and secrets being kept.
At Roseland, Ethan and Alice stand on a stage that resembles the inside of a Nike Fuelband, giant light blasts coating the room in yellow, blue and red, though rarely having the ability to reveal their faces. She's active; he's not. Visually, he is like one of Kevin's props in Home Alone, a silhouette that bounces up and down, up and down, doing whatever the strings make him do. Alice is the one to watch, though she performs as if in a foreign movie. Her body dances as if out of her control, writhing and whirling, her bob of hair smashing to the right and cutting to the left, a streaky blur of purple.
She handles the mic as if standing at the edge of an abyss; makes sense, considering she's styled like Republica, a vision of the future as seen from the '90s. Her voice distorted into keytar scratches and computer pulses, she is quite literally the face of the band. Over the course of the night, she races into the crowd, clambering far out on top of outstretched hands before trying to crawl back, desperate. It's a move Alice does often, like a child touching the stove. She and Ethan really are slaves to pattern.
The lights change from song to song, but little else does. Being that the performance is so repetitive, it gives a lot of time to consider what one is watching. I thought I'd be overwhelmed by the noise walking in; instead, it was the light show that was too much, strobes that boggle the eye and blind the mind. I spent about half of the show trying to describe Alice, who works the room like the a-ha videocome to life, slamming her body against the empty air. During "Baptism," she reminded me of Lady Gaga in an oil spill; as "Untrust Us" waned, it looked like she was skydiving with her feet near the ground.
One can tell Alice is putting a lot of effort into singing, but she can't be heard; it's a bit like watching a clip at the MoMA.
It'd also be easy to compare her to a J.D. Salinger character based on her last name, but then there's this: "Jennifer Dunn, in an essay, mentioned that the 'disparity between bright busy surfaces and inner emptiness' found in Franny and Zooey can be read as a metaphor for modern society," which could also apply to Crystal Castles. Quelle overwrought.)
One can tell Alice is putting a lot of effort into singing, but she can't be heard; it's a bit like watching a clip at the MoMA. The experience as a whole is deadening, dreary and sad, lonely and a bit disturbing. Hands reach up, fingers spread—itching at the stage, waving limp—but they feel nothing. It's uncomfortable to watch, which is why so many audience members just keep their eyes closed, mouths open.
Even still, there's no care from onstage. They seem to not notice the crowd at all, even when Alice is standing among or on top of them. Last year, Ethan gave an interview to an Australian publication. Asked why their fans like them, he responded, "Crystal Castles is really selfish. I think people want to come for that ride, because they appreciate that attitude."
Best Songs: "Plague," "Wrath of God," "Suffocation," the first three performed.
Worst Songs: The ones I couldn't understand.
Crowd Noise: After the show ended and everyone was pouring out onto the street, a man asked, "Why is everyone so wet?"
Spotted: Striped shirts, a guy with gauges as big as softballs, a man with gray hair passed out, people who looked like they were from Brooklyn but talked like they were from the suburbs, a skinny shirtless guy doing jujitsu by himself and clapping to himself and now he's jumping in a circle, skinny girls wearing tons of layers, bigger girls wearing droopy tees, white people, more white people.
Additional Thoughts: It's a bit reductive to say I didn't like the show; not every experience needs to be 'liked.' I think they accomplished what they set out to do, in every sense of their mission. It is uncomfortable. It is cold. It is bleak and empty and harsh. Crystal Castles' shows aren't supposed to be enjoyed. Rather, much like a dark drama, they should be felt, processed and remembered.