Roseland Ballroom, New York, October 3
The image of a woman in a burka clutching her wounded son – on a backdrop looming behind the stage – is startling. She’s cast in shadow. He’s pale and half-naked, cowering in her arms. It could be mistaken for a Michelangelo painting, but it’s the World Press Photograph of The Year, taken by Spanish snapper Samuel Aranda after an anti-government protest in Yemen. It’s also on the cover of Crystal Castles’ third album, ‘(III)’, released next month.
Not that there’s much chin-stroking happening tonight at the Roseland Ballroom. A girl staggers away from the crowd, vomits over her shoes and keeps drinking. College jocks wring sweat out of their T-shirts, leaving puddles on the carpet. Meanwhile, Alice Glass skips about the stage like a puppet with her strings tangled, flanked by lights resembling an octopus’ tentacles. They shoot out strobes so dazzling they justify her sunglasses. Her cropped bob is dyed pink, topping off the kind of disguise you’d wear on the run from the FBI. Then there’s the sight of thousands of New Yorkers going batshit crazy, competing to see who can amass the most bruises. In Midtown Manhattan, such spectacles are uncommon.
You could blame noise-rock quartet Health for working everyone into this tizzy in the first place. Crystal Castles’ sometime collaborators have been on the down-low recently, unless you count their soundtrack for the game Max Payne 3, released earlier this year. Tonight they dish out new material in abundance, and it sounds colossal. Behind its thundering drums and sleazy LA sheen, there’s a festering unease. One new song is set to a drone of piercing distortion, until it reaches an unbearable climax. John Famiglietti takes occasional breaks from twiddling effects pedals and playing bass to engage in some hair-whipping on ‘Crimewave’ (later to be given the Crystal Castles treatment). With the physique of Stretch Armstrong and the locks of a mermaid, he’s hypnotising. Things get even more berserk when they drop ‘USA Boys’ from remix compilation ‘Disco 2’. If its stuttering keyboards are an indicator of what the next Health record will sound like, it’ll be very good for you indeed.
Since 2010’s ‘(II)’, Crystal Castles’ Alice Glass and Ethan Kath have toured relentlessly, becoming the bane of security personnel worldwide. But dance music is changing. Over 20 years after England fell in love with it, the explosion of EDM has seen mainstream America finally realise its appeal. Now Crystal Castles occupy an odd corner: too anarchic to compete with the Skrillex and Deadmau5 superstar DJ lot, they’ve also long outgrown their modest DIY origins. Their response, it seems, is to quarry dystopian imagery like Aranda’s photograph, while upgrading their apocalyptic keyboards. In spring they decamped to Warsaw to record ‘(III)’ in one-take blitzes, using only analogue gear. You can spot the progression on ‘Plague’. “You’re ripe for harvesting”, Glass bellows in the verse, before a crescendo explodes into throbbing synths. In ‘Baptism’, she swigs whisky from the bottle and spits it onto the front row. Among the white lights, she’s devised her own brand of anti-religion. Nothing captures this better than new track ‘Wrath Of God’. The bleakness of Kath’s desolate keyboard is engulfed in sinister distortion. It transcends this oppression to sound louder and more bombastic than anything else they’ve produced.
Armed with this demonic new sound, no-one moves faster than Glass. She could give classes in retaining immaculate posture while perched atop a human pyramid. Soon she’s teetering on the drums. Only a few songs in, she’s already deployed most of the tricks used to spruce up the dullest of encores. All that’s left is for her to take a breather, hunched over a soundboard with Kath for chopped-up remixes of ‘Vanished’ and ‘Crimewave’. Without her feral exploits, it’s the only moment when the energy flags. Glass stays pretty static for tonight’s third and final ‘(III)’ preview. Dense and dissonant, its sparring keyboard lines have a splintering texture. Its tentative, improvised feel sounds like the product of those one-take sessions.
‘Yes No’ closes a set that only teases at their supersized new scope. Once more, Glass ends up spread across members of the crowd, drifting as far as her microphone will stretch. As the drums disintegrate and reverb rings out, she gives a coy, silent wave before gliding away, offstage, leaving the noise behind.