Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email


Against Hype

Crystal Castles, Health, Thrust Lab, Diagonal Buildings, Ottobar, March 23

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SAPPED: Crystal Castles' Alice Glass fails to wow the Ottobar.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 3/26/2008

If good dance music is at base about rhythm, you had to question Crystal Castles' bona fides when leaving the Ottobar last Sunday night, after their skin-flaying, feedback-flinging opening act had run away with the biggest and best beat of the evening. Or perhaps the noise band outshining the buzzed-about body rockers was only fitting given that this well-advertised Easter bill was misleadingly sold as a total package to indie-centric beatheads. Instead it offered those who bothered showing up early some chintzy Gallic techno kitsch (Diagonal Buildings) and melodramatic disco-rock that should have just ditched the disco (Thrust Lab).

So, on the one hand, Los Angeles foursome Health stood out in this lukewarm company simply by virtue of sounding like primal scream queen Arthur Janov gone grindcore. But the band danced past even its neo-skronk peers by virtue of the drummer giving up some heavy-duty tribal funk for a sound built on shuddering digi-distortion and three-part screeching. And though the instrumentals peppered with keening moans--calling 'em "songs" would be false advertising--could build to a trance, Health also exploded a given groove with a jagged sense of purpose. While the band thanked the audience for coming out, it launched into its final number: about 15 seconds of arrhythmic ear-obliteration. Instead of wincing, folks cheered, and with good reason.

But the not-quite-capacity crowd was still there for Crystal Castles, a practically newborn male/female electro duo from Canada. (He handles the tech; she's got the mic.) On the twosome's recently released debut album, the songs are brief reminiscences over the buzzing, low-res charms of early Human League singles and acid house cuts, with slight, tomboyish Alice Glass shrieking or cooing over the cranked-up déjà vu bleeps. You can't call these punks twisting techno particularly new--severe-unto-camp Michigan duo ADULT. got to a similar place a decade ago, for one easy comparison--but the record is playfully bratty enough to have built up a head of hype to cut through a crowded market for synthesizer nostalgia.

Live, it was a joke. The flesh-and-blood tour drummer moved the music forward with the cold competence you'd expect from a sequencer's replacement; the synth riffs swelled to fill the room with pleasing hints of early-'90s stadium rave; a strobe light (exhaustingly deployed during every tune) provided the only visual distraction. But no amount of competence, volume, or flashing light could distract from Glass' nonexistent range and galling lack of charisma. Again and again, she deployed the same three irritating vocal tics: hoarse shout, hissy whisper, cod-sexy moan. Again and again, she did her painful little histrionic dance: somewhere between Belinda Carlisle and self-strangulation.

Compared to a truly possessed demon diva like Mu's Mutsumi Kanamori, Glass was a piker. Too lost onstage even to parody pissed-off punk, she felt utterly detached from the sound around her, a random interloper whom no one had the heart to snatch the mic from. Watching, you remembered once again why dance music so often does away with perfunctory frontpeople, and you suddenly realized why Glass was mixed so distractingly low on the band's records. At the end of its set, Health thanked its pals for the support slot. Respective profiles be damned, the situation should have been reversed.

Related stories

Feedback archives

More Stories

In a Lonely Place (8/4/2010)
Montreal's Arcade Fire shows its American roots on new album

Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst

By the Throat (6/9/2010)
Pianos Become the Teeth wrest screamo back from latter-day crapcore nonsense

More from Jess Harvell

Keeping Up (12/2/2009)
Nearly 20 years after his death, Arthur Russell finally gets the biography he deserves

Human Architecture (7/29/2009)
The protagonist isn't the only one obsessed with capturing life in two dimensions in Asterios Polyp

The Unseen (11/5/2008)
Catherine Pancake and Jai Brooks Capture a Slice of Black Baltimore Lesbian Life in Jay Dreams

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter