Crystal Castles harness the power of punk to initiate a trance
MUSIC The first song on Crystal Castles' new LP, "Fainting Spells," is a test, a real Indiana Jones-style booby-trap, to ward off unwitting tourists. It opens with a high-pitched squeal, then a driving drum beat — if it came on in the car while your iPod was on shuffle, you'd probably leap out of your seat. The screeching and squealing continues for about two minutes, then plateaus for a breath, and when they return it's like hearing them for the first time. In the context of a new back-beat, they make you nod your head a bit and notice they've been harnessed into a pattern.
Crystal Castles' sounds are harsh, but they are a band keenly aware of what a difference a little context can make. I'm reminded of that old Jim Thompson quote: "A weed is a plant out of place. I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, it's a weed. I find it in my yard, and it's a flower." Crystal Castles has made a career out of understanding the difference.
Crystal Castles their began their musical career as a lo-fi electronic outfit in Toronto made up of producer Ethan Kath and vocalist Alice Glass. Although they claim the name came from She-Ra's sky fortress and not the 1983 Atari game, their sound has a catchy MIDI game soundtrack feel to it that makes you wonder if it wasn't the other way around. When the band first started out, it was Glass' ferocious voice and raucous stage show that claimed most of the attention. But on the duo's second self-titled album released earlier this year, Glass' fierce vocals and Kath's exploratory coarseness are focused, so they stay harsh while coloring within the lines.
Make no mistake, although the duo's sound has cleaned up, it's still not the kind of music you want to spin at your grandparents' anniversary get-together. The punk-rock attitude suits Kath and Glass just fine, and they return the favor tenfold, first with those aforementioned booby-traps. The albums' initial single "Doe Deer" headlines a blazing guitar riff under Glass' chaotic screaming, and has a structure not unlike "Fainting Spells," where Kath builds on chaos then channels it. But songs like these recall the patchy design of the band's 2008 debut. Much more surprising are the quieter moments, which see the band embracing the fact that no matter how punk its aesthetic, people are still dancing to this stuff.
Kath continues to experiment with vocal sounds, using repeated syllables that move to the beat and a wide array of samples. I thought "Year of Silence" had Glass singing either in German or backward; a little Googling revealed it not to be Glass at all, but a Sigur Rós sample. Crystal Castles' 14 little experiments are tighter and slicker than on previous releases, a shift that was hinted at with last year's "Baptism" single. The song returns here, retooled with additional beats and a quickened tempo that suggests Kath and Glass have more than a passing interest in real rave-style trance.
I don't know, maybe aloof indie kids are afraid of the words "trance" and "rave-music," envisioning a sea of candy bracelets and pacifiers. But in taking a punk music approach to electronic music, Crystal Castles is making it easier to convert the suspicious. Kath's consistently imaginative use of crude noises and familiar-but-disassociated vocals makes Crystal Castles at once a profoundly jarring and catchy album. In an electronic landscape largely still populated by house and ambient, it's nice to have a band that can churn out such beautiful flowers where other artists see pesky weeds.
With Rusko, Sinden, and Proxy
Aug. 6, 7 p.m., $35
The Fox Theatre
1807 Telegraph, Oakl.