Crystal Castles has a storied history of raucous performances, undoubtedly owing not only to the band’s unpredictable musicality — at times derivative of pop music structures and at others reminiscent of the bombastic style of rave music — but also, and perhaps most importantly, the stage presence of former frontwoman Alice Glass. After her tumultuous split with producer and fellow songwriter Ethan Kath, the creative spark to Glass’ memorable showmanship, Glass was replaced by new singer Edith Frances, whose vocals can be heard on their new album Amnesty (I).
The answer to the question of how different Crystal Castles’ live performances would be without Glass seemed to be answered by the lukewarm crowd Wednesday at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. To be fair, the band was opening for Die Antwoord, resulting in a short 45-minute set and an audience that seemed to be composed mainly of Die Antwoord fans. These hurdles, however, didn’t stop Crystal Castles from giving a visceral, ear-splitting performance that worked to compensate for the quietness of the crowd by amplifying the sound of the instrumentals to asphyxiating levels.
The band opened with “Concrete,” an Amnesty (I) track. LCD screens blushed an electric blue, rendering the fog around them a ghostly mist. The flickering floodlights, still strobing from the moment Crystal Castles walked on stage, were a constant aspect throughout the band’s performance. This effect worked to emulate the flashing stills of a horror movie, furthering the violent aesthetic of its set. Frances seemed to be galvanized by the thumping, deafening bass — which, at points, drowned out her screeching vocals and seemed to shake the very foundation of the venue — and spent the majority of the song jumping erratically on stage.
Interestingly enough, despite the hyper-aggressive tones that color the nature of its music and its performances, Crystal Castles did not interact with the audience much at all. Introductions of and transitions between songs were tacit; The audience would know that the band was playing a new song when the floodlights would cut off and on again, most times in a different color than they were in the song before.
This perhaps works as a response to the stormy aftermath of Glass’ departure, during which Kath and Glass engaged in a small Twitter feud over the impact of Glass in Crystal Castles’ musical history. This was followed by the band (with its current lineup) being booted from performing at Tumblr’s feminist-themed showcase at SXSW in March. This seemed to be a direct result of comments made by Glass, which alleged that Kath is not an appropriate performer for a feminist event. The band, in its silence, seems to be expressing a sentiment of looking forward. It’s allowing its music to speak for itself in a vacuum independent of the group’s history.
The setlist only seems to corroborate this. It was composed of mainly songs from the latest album (“Char,” “Enth,” “Fleece” and “Frail”), and the fan-favorites from previous albums that Crystal Castles chose to include (“Crimewave,” “Not in Love”) were tracks that were primarily produced by Kath.
The band ended the night with “Not in Love,” a cover from ‘80s new wave band Platinum Blonde that appeared on its second album (II). The track features The Cure’s lead singer Robert Smith on the album. In its live performance, however, the band opted to distort the vocals of Frances to create an other-worldly, alien-like effect that worked in conjunction with the eerily melodic synths and piercing percussive beats that flooded the venue.
Although Crystal Castles’ set was sequestered to such a short time slot, the band certainly did the most with what it was given. With this performance, Crystal Castles works to answer the concerns regarding the quality of their live shows. For the fans worried about it after the departure of Glass, there is only optimism in their future. As seen — and heard — in the band’s performance of “Celestica,” the modifications of Frances’ vocals works not only as an homage to the past but also a teaser of what’s to come.
Contact Josh Gu at [email protected].