Shock and aw

Pub date June 4, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


The White Stripes may be dormant and the Black Keys may be slowly incinerating their blues-rock genre confines, but elsewhere the minimalist, ’00s-styley, binary-busting power of two remains potent. Recent releases by No Age and Crystal Castles — Nouns (Sub Pop) and Crystal Castles (Lies/Last Gang) respectively — demonstrate as much. At first listen, the pair of twosomes seems spazzily coupled, sharing a short-attention-span feel and what-the-fuck adventurousness.

Yet it only takes a few listens to uncover major divergences. No Age’s two-part cluster bomb boasts forward-facing rock juxtaposed with moments of Sonic Youth–like distorto-delicacy. They may be a two-fer, but they’re also a clear segment of a community: witness the rainbow connection of faces in Nouns‘ booklet. Meanwhile Crystal Castles finds Ethan Fawn, né Kath, and Alice Glass looking determinedly toward the future, in us-against-the-world lonesomeness — armed with keys modified, as legend has it, with an Atari 5200 sound chip. Though their simultaneously noisy and dancey, agitated pop — searching, sample-heavy, and propelled by Glass’s effects-doused coos and cries — comes off as surprisingly accessible, theirs isn’t a trillion-bit future of audiophile perfection. And definitely don’t call the Toronto twosome nu rave, even though they remixed pals the Klaxons early in their four-year existence.

"There is nothing ‘rave’ about the way we sound," Kath writes in an e-mail from Moscow. "There is nothing ‘rave’ about the way we look." Instead, he adds, Crystal Castles’ earliest idea was "to try putting a New Order beat under noise-punk."

The duo met while reading to the blind as part of "community service punishment," as Kath puts it. "I was in a metal band, and we could not cross the US border because I had a criminal record. I did the community service work to clear my record. Instead I met Alice. We bonded over our shared love of noise-punk bands. She invited me to see her noise-punk band [Fetus Fatale], and I fell in love with her lyrics."

According to Kath, he left his group, Kill Cheerleader, on the verge of major record deal to make music with Glass under a name cribbed from She-Ra’s stronghold. "We are named after a line in a commercial for the toy version of She-Ra’s castles," writes Kath. "The line is ‘the fate of the world is safe in Crystal Castles.’"

The collaboration grew from a handful of Kath guitar-noise tracks supplemented with Glass’ vocals, to a second batch that, he offers, "were 100 percent based on samples (Madonna, Joy Division, Death from Above 1979, 8bitcommunity, Grand Master Flash). In 2005 we abandoned the idea of using samples and began looking for own our songs."

Meanwhile their experiment has been catching on: an early "Alice Practice" track put out as a 500-copy 7-inch by London’s Merok Records sold out within three days. More recently Crystal Castles — which compiles "Alice Practice" and other sold-out singles, unreleased tracks from the same era like "Courtship Dating" and "Vanished," and new tracks such as "Black Panther" and "Through the Hosiery" — has established a beachhead on CMJ charts.

The duo may never have thought their remixes of Bloc Party, among others, would be popular ("The [Klaxons] remix was so well-received that other bands began offering me money to remix them as well. It was at a time when we couldn’t afford a small bag of chips, so I was saying yes to everything," writes Kath). And they may have never imagined their so-called failures would find life online. For "Crime Wave [Crystal Castles vs. Health], Kath says, "I tried to cut up the vocal track from a Health song and place it over an unused CC rhythm track. I believed it was a failed experiment, but the track leaked and people were trading it on the Internet and finally in 2007 a label called Trouble Records decided to release it as a limited seven-inch single. It sold 2,000 copies in a week." But at least part of the world outside Crystal Castles listened closely.

All of which explains some of the controversy swirling around the band. In April the Torontoist and Pitchfork reported on the duo’s use of Trevor Brown’s black-eyed Madonna image for T-shirts, the "Alice Practice" single cover, and an early "banned" Crystal Castles cover. The band has stated that they initially found the art uncredited on an old flyer, and went on to form a handshake agreement with the artist. Brown, on the other hand, alleges he was never paid for the work’s use, while the group and its management allege that they tried to contact him without success.

Furthermore, the chiptune or 8-bit community appears to be up in arms regarding Crystal Castles’ sampling, leading to report on Crystal Castles’ alleged use of Belgian producer Lo-bat’s "My Little Droid Needs a Hand" for their track "Insecticon," which some say is outside the provisions of Creative Commons licensing (the work was available free for noncommercial uses, though some chip-tuners claim "Insecticon" has been used promotionally in a way that violates Creative Commons’ spirit).

Meanwhile Crystal Castles, which has deferred comment on the allegations, continues to navigate a fine, fragile line. Though the fortress has clearly been breached, the duo emphasizes its hermetic remove ("We created the songs in isolation," Kath writes), which is colored by a somewhat understandable defensiveness. ("We think there is hostility in all the tracks"). "People seem to love or hate the music," Kath writes. "We never thought about our listeners. We put these songs together for ourselves, and it’s a shock that anyone is listening."

At the very least, the twosome have retained the kind of fatalistic humor that surely led them to create the Crystal Castles CD art: an image of the pair looking down, faces hidden, and bowing — or rising up. "In the universe of pop music," Kath opines, "we are the litter collecting at the sewer grate."


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