28th November 2012
Crystal Castles are an enormously difficult outfit to make sense of. They present themselves as embodiments of their own take on the punk aesthetic, but play the 2500 capacity Academy 1 tonight as part of a tour of similarly-sized venues that is seeing them perform, not for the first time, to a mixture of posers and Topshop-attired indie kids who look about as likely to incite genuine anarchy as the Women’s Institute. They project an apparent disdain for publicity that, given their frequent appearances in the NME, is surely disingenuous. And the three records they’ve released to date, all solid efforts that occasionally sparkle with brilliance, have often proved little more than an afterthought in the public consciousness when compared to their typically-frenetic live shows.
The Crystal Castles live experience is considerably less raw these days, at least in terms of Alice Glass’ crowd interaction; she certainly gets involved tonight, but she seems more interested in crowd surfing and sharing the mic than starting a fight with literally anyone who’s interested. Way back in the heady days of 2008, Glass’ appetite for pseudo-violent confrontations with the crowd and, often, the security often spilled over into the crowd and made their shows at least notorious enough for the NME to view them as the band to preserve the publication’s punk credentials – you might remember that they spent most of the rest of 2008 forcing Glasvegas and Mystery Jets onto anyone who’d listen. To their credit, though, Glass and perma-hooded beat-provider Ethan Kath have acknowledged the decline in intensity and attempted to offset it with by making the evening into less of a concert and more a fearsome, multi-sensory assault probably best avoided by those of a nervous disposition.
The decibel level has been cracked up considerably, every beat now designed to batter the eardrums, but for the most part it’s an improvement, especially in terms of Glass’ vocals; in the past, they were too often too quiet, drowned in Kath’s sea of synth, or too heavily distorted, but tonight the shrieks are crisp throughout the likes of ‘Alice Practice’ and ‘Baptism’, and her more sedate, melodic delivery on ‘Celestica’ cuts through equally strongly. The light show is totally blistering, with strobes of such severity that any sound man brave enough to tour with the band is obviously willing to part with his corneas.
The problem, though, is that when the evening’s calmer, more pensive moments arrive, they serve only to lend the set a disjointed feel. We already know that Crystal Castles are capable of quieter, reflective moments, but the likes of ‘Sad Eyes’ and ‘Empathy’, whilst not perhaps as out of place as they might have been a few years ago, still don’t sit comfortably alongside the barrage of noise that the rest of the set represents. We’re watching a band in transition – not the riot-inciters they once were, but, onstage at least, not yet the versatile unit that their records present, either.