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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Crystal Castles @ Turner Hall Ballroom

May 6, 2013

crystal castles
Photo credit: CJ Foeckler
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I’ll always recall the first time I saw Crystal Castles live, because it was at Lollapalloza, and singer Alice Glass punched a fan in the face. Even from half a crowd away, it looked like a solid blow. Glass had been crowd surfing, so she had the elevation working in her favor, and she jerked her hand back in pain after the impact; I can only imagine what his face felt like. The jury is out as to whether he deserved it (in as much as anybody could ever deserve being cracked in the face, at least). She claimed the fan had groped her, and if so it’s hard to blame her for reflexively striking back. But according to crowd witnesses, the guy was reaching for the bottle of vodka she’d been angrily swigging from for the entire set, not her body. To most people who saw it, it seemed less like Glass was taking a stand against grabby creeps, and more like she was taking on her indiscriminate drunken rage on the nearest, easiest target. These sorts of incidents (and there were actually quite a few of them during their early years) gave the Crystal Castles a reputation for being, frankly, not especially good people, or at minimum a hostile group, an impression that was supported by their music: assaultive, nightmarish electro that seemed to lash out directly at the listener.

These days Crystal Castles no longer seem like the type of act that’s going to punch a dude in the face. Glass surfed the crowd plenty of times during their Turner Hall Ballroom show last night, and nobody seemed at risk of inciting her ire. Even when she spat Jack Daniels on the crowd, it seemed more playful than mean (and compared to her Lollapalooza antics, even generous; this time she wasn’t hoarding the liquor for herself). Perhaps against the odds, the electronic duo—a trio in concert, where they’re joined by a drummer—has proven themselves dynamic, capable of outgrowing traits that could have easily become shtick, and much as they’ve left behind the video-game bleeps of their self-titled 2008 album, they’ve gradually tempered their rage. Subsequent albums (II) and (III) have introduced a much broader emotional palette, emphasizing prettier, dreamier washes of sound that arrive not just with force, but with grace.

There’s a risk in a band like Crystal Castles taming their sound, of course. While (II) and (III) are both wonderful, beautifully crafted records, they’re not especially exciting records, and they lack the undeniable immediacy of an album like Crystal Castles. That feeds a narrative that the group has lost its initial spark, and there was some evidence supporting that during their Turner Hall Ballroom set, where, unsurprisingly, the songs that made the crowd bounce highest were the ones from their debut: “Crimewave,” “Alice Practice,” “Courtship Dating,” and two or three others I couldn’t name offhand but perk up instinctively upon hearing. That debut was a remarkable assemblage of songs, and the odds of them ever re-bottling that lightning are slim. But the new material held its own, too, and thanks to an eye-searing light show, a deft sound mix and Glass’s kinetic performance and ceaseless crowd-working, the show never lagged. A train wreck is always going to be more memorable than a well-oiled machine, so it’s hard to romanticize a band’s shift away from pure rebellion toward practiced professionalism, but Crystal Castles, who once seemed like they might implode at any moment, now seem like they’re going to be around for a while, and that’s a development worth celebrating.