Crystal Castles - Manchester Academy 1
They announced their return to the UK this summer with daredevil main stage mid-afternoon sets at Reading and Leeds Festivals. Doubters reckoned they needed the safety net of a roof and a darkened room. Rammed and rattling fields suggested otherwise. But yes, as tonight makes clear, to truly harness their breakneck energy, it’s enclosure you need. The promise of something foreboding and primal hangs in the air. It all makes sense: you’d want to cage this monster. In line with the chill worldview of new album (III), the Crystal Castles live experience is uncompromising and bludgeoning. The unlovely Academy, a large concrete box, is all the duo needs: opulence and comfort would surely be a distraction from the job in hand.
And the kids are here to work, no doubt. As ever, the over-arching dichotomy at the heart of Crystal Castles' brittle aesthetic demands answer. Have you come to be brutalized? Or to be saved? Levels of devotion and fevered involvement suggest both. The crowd really is made up of, largely, ‘kids’. You’d maybe expect a few more chin strokers in their 30s or whatever but the majority tonight are under 18. A good thing. Kinda gives you hope. The youth, demonstrating a healthy ‘Ooh, what does this big red button do?’ mentality, offer two fingers to the reality show conveyor and the safe mainstream with its attendant money-grabbing misogyny. Their heroes (no exaggeration – the houselights going down triggers ear-splitting hysteria) note this and set about them.
‘Plague’, a monolith of shuddering off-beat, is a volcanic opener. Dry ice and a twitchy light show sets the tone. Nigh on invisible amidst the strobes, a newly blonde Alice Glass ventures into the crowd throughout. A tide of arms reaches out not just to offer support but to touch. They hold her vertical and they pass her on her back across the crowd. The care they take is a marvel, the trust and the understanding. No-one comes close to anything requiring a fist in the face. They care for her too much to abuse her and her trust. It’s the ultimate laying on of hands.
So, prepare to be torn apart. The PA is properly loud and the sound mix is solid, delivering volume and clarity. Ethan Kath’s beats and keys, and Chris Chartrand’s drums, they fight to get to the front. There’s a pulsing bass slab that unpicks your sternum. But always there’s room for the detail: ‘Celestica’’s tip-toe melody, the synth washes of ‘Wrath of God’, Alice’s vocals always just out of reach, pitched just outside of the mix. ‘Crimewave’ and ‘Baptism’ are dispatched early. They’re peace offerings, sweet meats softening us up for the hard candy to come. Later, ‘Doe Deer’, ‘Alice Practice’, ‘Black Panther’ all take a mighty swing, the dark matter of post-rave.
The pair are on tour but they turn out in Crystal Castles Home Kit. Ethan, this season mostly wearing Canadian pine logger chic, throws in black leather for added (unnecessary) menace. Alice sports The Usual, that oddly modest but beautifully unfashionable combo of khaki jacket, black tee, black skirt, ripped tights, 8 hole black DMs. In other words, early 90s Indie Girl but with the fey, fringe chewing replaced with JD-swigging snarl. Don’t tell the fashionistas (“Get the Alice look – we show you how!”) but there’s no cooler pop star alive.
Buckle up. The show explodes. It’s a crazed, double-time, hypersonic triumph. 70 minutes and as much of a spectacle as you could squeeze into a hall this size. To be honest, it could have been anyone up there: the expansive, generous light show turns the pair into ghosts, jittery shadow puppets, a zoetrope nightmare of missing frames and jerky moves. For once, the “May induce seizures” warnings could apply to anyone. With Glass such a fireball, it’s not like there’s much need to further enliven the presentation but credit for smart staging.
All told, Crystal Castles display unexpected scope. Thirty years ago, you explored the distance between performer and audience by building an 80 foot wall at the front of the stage. The pomp dinosaurs are dead now, the electronic age making statement art a button press away. Alice Glass’s stroboscopic form is ever present but always out of reach. There’s your wall. She inhabits the stage like a ghoul from Japanese arthouse horror. It’s a beguiling shadow play but rather than acting out your own death, you’re living in the moment, celebrating the warring trials and joys of this life: Crystal Castles demand as much. If at times it feels like a test rather than an absolute pleasure (and a 5 minute section just past the mid way point, where it’s just Chartrand and an awful battery of white light, feels like we’re being hazed), at least there’s the feeling of having made it out alive. During a closing brace of ‘Intimate’ and a pulverizing ‘Yes No’, you sense a quickening and a terrible awakening. When they pull the plug…what will happen? Will we even be able to breathe?
But…oh. It’s over. We’re still. They’re gone. We’re alive. 2000 people look around them like they can’t quite work out who they are, where they are or how they got here. Everyone is smiling. (How often do you see that?) What happened here tonight? From their willingness to document the horrors of the day, their unquestioning offering of themselves in performance and even the wide-eyed community of the pit, every faller quickly pulled back to their feet by those around them, Crystal Castles seem to espouse a philosophy altogether more inclusive and laudable than your typical alt. agitators. They blitzkrieg their audience, assault them with the various cruelties of the world and their audience, arms open wide, offers them absolution.