Crystal Castles Make the Ballroom Bounce

On a rainy mid-fall Friday evening, the Commodore Ballroom held host to one of electronic music’s most vibrant, expanding and unpredictable groups that is out there today. This act is Toronto’s Crystal Castles, who played the same venue when they were last here in March 2011. Singer/screamer/front-woman Alice Glass sported a cast and a crutch during the spring performance because she had broken her leg earlier that year before a show. The woman is known for her erratic, volatile behaviour on stage; there are many stories of stage-diving (every performance, whether it be a basement party or the main stage of Reading Festival), speaker climbing, trashing equipment, narrowly avoiding arrest for “riling up” crowds, and getting violent with bouncers and fans alike.

Principal songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath (real name Claudio Palmieri) said in a 2008 interview that: “[the] live experience is all about Alice. She is a mental case on stage, and is just uncontrollable. She loses herself in the music. After the show, she is covered in bruises and she can’t remember how they got there.”

The band has both had their sets cut short by concert promoters (Glastonbury 2008 lasted 20 minutes) and have cancelled shows because of disputes with club owners and other bands. Crystal Castles have also been in trouble for copyright infringements for using samples and a drawing without permission.

The show was supposed to have two other openers, but Los Angeles experimental noise and electronic rock band HEALTH had to cancel their last remaining nine tour dates with Crystal Castles due to unknown reasons at the time this review was written. This was a shame because HEALTH are supposed to be known for their frenzied live shows and awesome musicianship. They and Crystal Castles have been remixing one another’s and collaborating since both bands started around the mid-2000s. In fact, one of Crystal Castles’ most popular tracks, Crime Wave is a direct re-working of a HEALTH song.

The show got underway at 9:45, with one-man-band Kontravoid coming on stage to a rumbling atmospheric synth that was bass-heavy enough to nearly vibrate my full beer glass from off my table and onto my lap. Dressed sharply in a dark blazer, slicked-back hair, white smiling mask, and leather gloves, Cameron Findlay, once the drummer for Crystal Castles (2007-2008), looked eerily similar to Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman character in American Psycho. Three songs into his set, the mask was removed and several audience members cheered. Findlay played some type of synthesizer or sequencer, frequently leaving his rig to sing and dance centre-stage.

After leaving Castles in 2008, Findlay formed Toronto synth-pop band Parallels and then left to concentrate on solo project Kontravoid. The latter’s debut self-titled album was released this summer and got decent reviews. Live, the dark electronic tracks sounded fine in the Commodore’s quickly filling interior and his use of a single strobe as lighting for the entire 30-minute set was simultaneously frustrating but effective. I picked up on elements of dark-wave, goth and synth-pop, and his deep vocals had a captivating effect like Peter Murphy, Nick Cave or newcomer John Maus; there is an excellent description of his sound on the Minimal Wave label website. While I saw some people dancing in the dark, it was difficult to tell overall how he resonated with the crowd who were almost all white twenty-somethings there to party with the headliners.

Kontravoid finished his set with “Killed in Action” and we were presented with nearly 45 minutes of Wu Tang Clan and other hip hop background music that started to wear on the restless crowd, even if some were busy taking the obligatory group photo shots.

Crystal Castles came on just before 11, opening with new single “Plague” off their upcoming third album, (III), due in mid-November. The duo of Ethan Kath and Alice Glass were joined by touring drummer Christopher Chartrand, whose at times frantic pounding was hard to differentiate between the organic and mechanical beats. During rave-ready hits “Baptism” and “Suffocation”, I finally felt a phenomenon that the Commodore is famous for—the bouncing floor. I’ve been to 5 or 6 shows at the venue before, but it wasn’t exactly jump-up-and-down music that I saw.

Alice Glass wasted no time getting intimate with the audience. With her blue-green hair rocking and trademark black eye shadow, she looked comfortable standing in combat boots up on top of the metallic guard rail. Her vocals were a mix of guttural screeches and heavily filtered synth sounds, possibly by way of a vocoder, especially on songs like “Crimewave” and “Empathy.”

Other new single, “Wrath of God”, showcased the group’s ability to fill the room with multiple layers of sound and melody while Alice’s vocals were filled with powerful reverb.

Yes, there were multiple times where she stood/kneeled/laid on her back on top of the masses while screaming-like-she-was-being-stabbed into her microphone. I was impressed with how much stamina and energy she puts into her performance. When not in or grabbing at the crowd, she danced/slinked around the stage and jumped up on the kick drum. There were also a couple of instrumental tracks where she played a synth such as the debut album’s lead track “Untrust Us” which samples Death From Above 1979’s “Dead Womb”. Ethan Kath was happy to stay back playing his rig in the shadows, rocking back and forth in a hoodie and toque.

Other songs that worked well live were “Alice Practice”, “Black Panther(super catchy), and “Vanished”. While set closer “Not in Love” wasn’t obviously as rocking nor had the same brilliant desperation as their jaw-dropping, chill-inducing version they later released with Robert Smith of the Cure on vocals, it was good enough for the circumstances.

From what I can tell from the short video clips I took with my phone and notes scrawled in the dark, the encore consisted of three songs that heavily favoured their early Nintendo-on-acid sound – Alice’s distorted vocals and Ethan’s synth line on “Love and Caring” sounded like industrial pop; there was more 8-bit funk on “Courtship Dating”; and things ended with live favourite and non-album track “Yes No”, a song that Alice is known to go especially mental on.

When the house lights came up, we were left sweaty, half deaf and having synaptic reactions from just having witnessed the well-deserved hype that is a Crystal Castles show.