Have you ever screamed? Have you ever let out a primal, from-the-depths-of-the-soul yell that shakes the foundation of your psyche and leaves you on your knees with a storm of feelings in your head? Crystal Castles has been doing that since 2003. With its lo-fi, pitch black wall of glitch-laced shrieking sound, the Toronto duo of producer Ethan Kath and singer Alice Glass were the musical equivalent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. But though their debut self-titled album and its follow-up Crystal Castles (II) were name-making and imitator-spawning, Kath and Glass were not philosophically static. They came of age with their focus and unraveled a musicality that evolved breathtakingly on their third album (III). After Glass’ controversial departure in 2014, Kath linked up Iowa-born singer Edith Frances, and armed with a new siren, released the band’s fourth album Amnesty (I) last year. In our chat with the pair, ahead of its upcoming show here, we found out that it doesn’t say very much – because, well, that’s what its music’s for.
It’s 5am on a Sunday morning here when our call gets patched through to Kath and Frances. We find out that they’ve just played at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival under much different conditions than their Neon Lights 2016 stint here. Back in late November last year, the pair went on at night, just after a ceaseless spell of rain, which was the perfect staging ground for its dark, brain-battering stylings. But at Coachella, the band went on in the late afternoon when the sun was at its zenith. When asked about whether the band found this odd, Ethan replies matter-of-factly, “It’s all the same; it’s about connecting with people”.
Rewind to 2008 when the first self-titled LP had come out. The band that made those 16 songs didn't sound like they wanted to ‘connect’ with you. In fact, it’s Internet lore that when asked by an interviewer about why the song “Xxzxcuzx Me” was so grating to listen to, Kath responded with, “To weed out the wimps [and] annoy the posers. We are saying, ‘We are not for you.’”
That wasn’t mere macho grandstanding. That was a warning that Crystal Castles offered something confrontationally original and new. At the time, the bright, bouncy nu rave aesthetic pioneered by the Klaxons was all the rage in the indie dance world. But with it’s frenzied mix of shoegaze, hardcore, no wave, techno, industrial and chiptune, Crystal Castles kicked down the doors of that party and blacked out the room.
There was absolutely no one making the making music then. And to this day, Kath remains alone in his singular altitude. Almost 10 years on, the impenetrable alienation evoked in “Crimewave” is still the soundtrack of the digital age. Maybe, that’s what connects us.
By the time the band’s second self-titled album slashed its way into the ether in 2010, it had acquired a rep that was as subversive as its music. This was a band whose merch once included an image of pop deity Madonna depicted with a black eye. And this straight-for-the-jugular angst coloured the world of its sophomore album in wholly new ways.
More than an update of its predecessor, Crystal Castles II was a refinement and sublimation of its ethos into an infinitely more spectacular whole. Instead of simply rehashing its serrated glitch-tronica, Kath mined from shoegaze’s constant juxtaposition of beatific transcendence and overpowering noise and surfaced with a broader, more dynamic sound. In this respect, the lead single “Celestica” is a bona fide marvel. Besides its trancey sprawl, which was the canvas upon which Glass’ sombre-yet-sublime vocals gave vent to the existential freight that band seemed to bear (and still does), there was a bass-y heft to its trebly arsenal.
When an fundamentally inaccessible band unfurls a slew of single-ready cuts without compromising on its edge, you know its got its sights set on horizons that beyond any particular niche. That’s why The Cure’s Robert Smith gets a spot on the album, covering a hit by Platinum Blonde, no less. Perhaps this is why no one should be surprised when Kath later reveals that he’s loved New Order his whole life and that his favourite song of theirs is “The Perfect Kiss”.
"Amnesty International asked me if I could contribute a song to a charity album. I told them I’d do a lot more than that; I’d rather do a whole album."
“Every time we start an album, we want fresh sounds”, Kath offers. Like everything he says to us, it’s a subtle summation of the world that informs each piece of music we inquire about. Crystal Castles’ third outing, 2012’s (III), was superlatively ‘fresh’. It was a widescreen masterpiece, crafted with a sense of precision though its wellspring was something as abstract as noise.
‘Synth-pop’ connotes a boxed-in sound that leads lesser bands to max out two albums in. But Kath and Glass escaped that fate with a distinct and devastating panache. On (III), the band’s signature of capturing panoramas of the apocalypse through a filter of reverb was twinned with a social consciousness inextricable from its makers’ hearts. Though consummately bleak, the band’s worldview now brought to bear the inescapably tangible issue of systemic oppression faced by disenfranchised groups. (III)’s cover art was the photograph of a hijab-clad mother cradling in her arms her son who was tear-gassed at a 2011 protest against the dictatorial former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Like its predecessors, (III) took place in a scorched earth, bereft of love and humanity. But rather than copping out with some vague pretense of hope, Kath and Glass affirmed their solidarity with the oppressed with an empathy both powerful and poignant. On the ravaging “Kerosene”, Glass coos emphatically, “I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen / And I’ll clean your wounds, rinse them with saline”. If the band’s outsider ethos’ proximity to social justice wasn’t obvious before, it was now undeniable.
And then Glass left. Besides being old news, her departure – though regrettable – should not be the focus of how the band should be perceived now. When she knocked over Kath at a mosh pit during a gig by hardcore vets Negative Approach in 2013, Edith Frances affirmed her place as the mouthpiece of the reconfigured Crystal Castles. Three years later, the band’s fourth album Amnesty (I) was released.
“Amnesty International asked me if I could contribute a song to a charity album. I told them I’d do a lot more than that; I’d rather do a whole album”, Kath says of its genesis. Besides containing the most nakedly emotive track in the band’s body of work “Char”, it’s an enchanting display of how the its patented wall-of-teeming-noise fares when directly interrogated by its antithesis. Sugary and lilting, besides its capacity for a bloodcurdling shriek, Frances’ voice afforded Kath’s questing sounds more space to roil. This is a jumping-off point from a band famed for its leaps.
As our time with the band winds down, the pair reveals that it’s working on a new EP and that we can be assured of “hard songs”. “Amnesty was hard but this is going to be very noisy and intense. We’re very excited about it”, is all that is offered in the way of elaboration by Frances. This is proof that Crystal Castles aren’t just a constant presence but a credible one. Like its forthcoming EP, you can surely expect a compromise-free performance later this month.
Catch Crystal Castles live at *SCAPE The Ground Theatre on May 23. Tickets available at moonbeats.asia now.
Interview and images courtesy of Moonbeats Asia