Webster Hall was on full CMJ overdrive last Thursday night. The venue booked more than ten acts over nine hours, with Crystal Castles headlining the early show in the grand ballroom to a sold-out crowd. Up until somewhat recently, they were a two-piece act live, with Ethan Kath hooded and stoic on the computer station, and Alice Glass on constant orange alert, spastic shadowboxing her way into some strobe light (or better yet, the front row). Well, they've added a drummer the past year (currently Michael Bell of Lymbyc System). Is it better? For sure. It's even more visceral than before, and as any disco-punk outfit will attest to, it's the drummer that makes it legit.
Crystal Castles has had their share of negative press in recent months, from the lawsuit that prevented the band from selling the Madonna face t-shirt, to the use of chip-tune samples from another musician that they published without credit. Such things have the potential to capsize bands, but Kath and Glass, in contrast to their cold-wave posture, are more ambitious and shrewd than they let on. They've emerged from all the lawsuit muck to create bigger and better performances that fill out larger venues, all without changing any of their original minimal set designs (strobes still aplenty).
On record, the music is more Kath's fingerprint, but live, it's all Alice Glass. With charcoal eyes and her Super Mario routine, Glass works the stage like a Ritalin-starved raccoon with an invisible pogo-stick, and the audience is usually more than happy to relay the frenzy. Her vocals, purposely distorted and over-gained, fell right in line with Kath's splintery beats, more so than on any of their recordings. The show was a workout, without question-you shouldn't be sweating this much in late October. A friend of mine, in the middle of the set, had to walk away from the pit to catch his breath. I had to make sure I was up front the entire time, not because of any sight-line issue, but because I felt better knowing that amidst all the human avalanches, the edge of the stage was within grasp, sort of like a wooden life-raft. Not once during the show did the band members interact with each other or address the crowd. I imagine them practicing in separate rooms, with the doors open. They also most likely eat their meals separately, after practice.
Even with all the bright white flood lighting and staccato synth, there were the occasional passages of stillness, where Glass would use as a cue to regroup, turn her back on the audience, and maybe crawl into the fetal position. By the time Glass had fed herself to the pit a third time, it had become certain that this was the only way you were going to get any form of sentiment out of this band. The people who got a piece of her must have considered themselves lucky.