Crystal Castles’ recent gig at The Tivoli started out strong.
Serious strobing and an operatic intro track announced the arrival of Ethan Kath and Edith Frances, both rocking the Toronto Hobo look, and diving straight into early single ‘Untrust Us.‘
This is a rave. Fit-inducing strobes alternate with roving blue spotlights, and the bass is at maximum. Frances rips off her orange beanie to unleash some dark-rooted acid-yellow hair and throws a filled drink into the crowd while screaming ‘this is your baptism!’ Meanwhile Kath remains bent over his decks, focused on what he’s doing and barely aware of an audience. When in doubt as to her next move, Frances fixes an angsty stare at a vague section of the audience and pulls her best ‘possessed by Satan’ expression, sometimes combining this with a similarly Satanic looking back bend.
Resembling an unhinged Cherie Curry from The Runaways, Frances jumps on an amp and squirts a Pump water bottle over her hair, letting the water run over her face and then proceeding to throw the bottle at the audience. Kath, who looks like a contemporary Black Beard these days, hops up and down as he spins at his decks. The show is dripping in bells and whistles, with echoes at every point possible, serious lighting, and heavy bass. It seems like Crystal Castles, but it’s nothing like it used to be.
Frances does the whole ‘tossing head in a drug-fucked way’ thing, sliding up and down the mic stand and going into mini trance after mini trance. Twisting and arching her body in these demented and unnatural ways seems contrived though. This gig feels like a sad taunt of what Crystal Castles used to be, replacing my adolescent heroes with a messy and sometimes plain silly performance.
There’s a weird transition between two songs where Frances disappears for a few minutes and comes back with red lipstick smeared all around her lips, conspicuous blood dripping from the corners of her mouth. She cocks her head back sharply like a vampire and begins yelling some lyrics, completely out of time with the music. She jumps around the stage and gives different sections of the audience dead stares while yelling into the mic, the cord draped all around her shoulders, her emaciated body like a harness. She seems to be taking the ‘unhinged’ thing too far, and is seemingly too out of it to put on a passable performance. The whole act is presumably intended in the band’s notoriously ‘riotous’ way, but it actually seems kind of ridiculous. During ‘Crimewave’ Frances bends backwards and feeds the mic down her throat instead of singing. Luckily, there’s no shortage of electronic filler sounds to create a distraction from whatever this sounds like. She is more like a performance artist than a front-person of a band.
I had wondered how different the performance would be following Alice Glass’s hardly amicable departure from the band in 2014. Frances is full of attitude and punky aggression, but her yelled distortion-soaked singing is nothing like the band’s last performance with Alice Glass I saw at Big Day Out 2011.
Glass’s charisma entailed poise and feeling, two things absent in the conduct of this numbed-out poser. The predominating attitude that comes through in Frances’ performance is detachment. Along with Glass’s vocal adversity to antagonists and oppression, her stage persona never leveraged apathy, and instead exhibited an effective amount of vulnerability without being completely wayward — an attribute Frances focuses on. At times the set segues into an über trance-like DJ set, with Frances disappearing offstage to give Kath a little solo time. Their sound has flattened out, taking on a more generic dance music style, with indistinct lyrics and whiney vocals. Is this where Crystal Castles is headed?
Over time, Crystal Castles’ approach has changed, taking things from maximal computer sounds to something more analog. While this may be the case for their recorded music, it certainly doesn’t extend to their live performance. Distortion has always held a place in their music, but this seems excessive, and perhaps serves to mask a voice lacking in actual talent.
Amidst the sea of mess there’s one song where both performers perfectly coordinate their movements with changes in tempo and light, and you get a glimpse of what a well pulled-off show might have felt like. Frances sings rather than yells during tracks like ‘Celestica’ offering an homage to the band’s previous iteration. In this context, her charisma and performance is compelling. Under pulsating light she stands still, engaging the audience with just her angelic voice and sad eyes. The perfect juxtaposition of this with the violent noise of the music is what places Crystal Castles’ in a category of their own, sometimes described as melancholic ‘witch house’.
The band leaves the stage, having left a drum machine going. The crowd is still raving, expecting the show to continue. Kath walks back onstage as if for an encore – and instead switches the drum machine off. All lights and sound go dead, snapping back on as Kath commences another solo track. He chucks a couple of Crystal Castles’ vinyl on the decks and slows them down to a fraction of their tempo, so that it sounds even more bizarre than usual. Frances ambles back onstage with a cigarette poised between her fingers, along with a mic. She sings over the slowed-up, warped track of an encore.
The set can be split into the tracks that Frances sings, and those that Frances screams. The screaming songs make you wonder why you’re indulging in this amateur carrying on, deciding that Crystal Castles has deteriorated with Glass’s departure, and that the band has little to offer. But during the other portion of songs, you remember how good they can sound, how unique their tracks were then and now.
After another departure, the band wind up back onstage, and to their credit, perform a second encore. It’s a screaming one, embellished by Frances swinging the mic stand around in her unhinged way. She then picks up another mic stand (where are they coming from?) and makes a dramatic cross in the air with them before sauntering offstage.
This time the drum machine halts abruptly, transitioning directly into The Tivoli’s interim playlist. There’s no mistaking that Crystal Castles have left the building for good this time, along with having left a creative era behind, which is proving difficult to replace.