September 28th, 2017 @ The Royale
By: Caroline Smith
When singer Alice Glass left Toronto duo Crystal Castles in 2014 due to “reasons both professional and personal”, many—including Glass herself—assumed that the band was over. Instead, the band’s manager immediately released a statement that Crystal Castles would continue. In 2016, remaining member Ethan Kath picked up singer Edith Frances and released the band’s first album since 2012’s (III), titling it Amnesty (I).
Later, Kath came under fire for his insincere “well-wishes” to Glass’ future solo endeavors and for downplaying her role in the band. He stated, “people often gave [Glass] credit for my lyrics, and that was fine, I didn’t care,” Glass responded on Twitter with “for the record, [I] wrote almost all of the lyrics in my former band and the vast majority of the vocal melodies,” stressing that she is a “founding member of Crystal Castles [who] shaped the sound and aesthetic from the very beginning.”
In addition to this, the album art and title of Amnesty (I) have been viewed as aggressive and somewhat misogynistic toward Glass. Some fans posit that titling Amnesty (I) with the roman numeral “I” instead of “IV” distances Glass from the band, and that the album art depicting several almost identical young girls suggests that Glass’s contributions to the band were expendable—easily replaceable compared to Kath’s own talents.
Given this years-long drama, I was curious to see how the band would hold up in performance without Glass, who used to be an integral part of Crystal Castles’ stage presence as well as their overall image as a band. In fact, to many people, she was the band. All of this is necessary background knowledge for understanding my mindset going into this concert, and also for understanding who Crystal Castles are in 2017.
The opener for the night is Farrows, who open with a strange remix of DJ Mustard’s “Mustard on the Beat” tag and the opening line of Rihanna’s “Needed Me” before transitioning to the synth lines of their first song. The band consists of John Herguth as the frontman (singer and keyboardist) and Kevin Campbell on drums. This set of band members surprises me because, when listening to them on Spotify and SoundCloud, they don’t sound like a particularly “electronic” band. There’s a lot of guitar in the recordings, but not a single guitar on stage.
Herguth isn’t an untalented singer per se, but the songs are too monotone for me to gather whether or not he’s particularly good. Campbell is who I end up watching: it doesn’t help that the drums are the main thing I can hear because the mixing for the concert is atrocious. They did start 15 minutes late for “technical difficulties,” so I can’t completely fault them. Their backdrop is also incredibly distracting, and consists of clips from various media that scroll by quickly, just one or two seconds each. The clips range from scenes of car crashes to those of war to old Hollywood clips to fighter pilots to children’s TV shows. My ADHD brain is so distracted by this that I ended up fixating on the screen for a lot of their set, so a recommendation I would make to Farrows would be to get rid of this backdrop (or at least play it for less of the set, because it is kind of cool). As a whole, Farrows’ performance doesn’t totally turn me off, but I don’t love it by any means. By the end, I’m ready for Crystal Castles and to remind myself of the olden days of listening to their self-titled (II) in high school.
Crystal Castles takes the stage amidst vocals reminiscent of a church choir and intense pink flashing lights. I can hardly see anything as my eyes adjust to being assaulted. The set is also excessively loud—I almost always wear earplugs to concerts for the sake of not being deaf by 25, and I’m grateful for them tonight. For the few minutes I have my earplugs out, my ears genuinely ache. Finally, as the choir vocals fade into industrial bass and the lights stop aggressively flashing, instead settling on just being extremely bright, I get my first good look at Alice Glass’ replacement: Edith Frances.
At first, seeing her, I almost do a double take. Her style is nearly identical to that of Glass: she wears all black, and her hair is cut in Glass’ signature bowl-cut-chic bob and dyed green. This is no fault to Frances, but it does strike me as a little strange given Kath’s comments about Glass’ expendability. The first few songs are “Antiquate,” “Wrath of God,” and then “Baptism,” and even in these first few tracks I am impressed by how natural and talented of a performer Frances is. Glass is a tough act to follow, as her live presence was one of the main reasons Crystal Castles became such a well-known name in electronic music, but Frances takes the lead with grace and skill, bouncing around the stage with bravado. Her voice shares Glass’ ethereal quality. During “Baptism,” she pours an entire bottle of water on her head and then throws it into the crowd. Later, she opens another water bottle, pours some over herself, and sprays the rest into the crowd, effortlessly interacting with us even though she never addresses us directly. Other song highlights of their pre-encore set include “Char,” “Crimewave,” “Empathy,” “Telepath,” and “Celestica.”
The encore is done untraditionally: there are two encores, but they don’t leave the stage at all until the last song is played, which is impressive for a set that lasts almost an hour and a half total. Instead, Kath simply plays a repetitive synth and heavy bass while they recover. The synth is made to sound like an artificial drum beat, and while listening to it isn’t insufferable, it’s kind of lazy and contrived. The times in between the actual set and the various encores would have been the perfect time for Kath to really shine as an electronic musician, but he entirely misses the mark. Sure, the time between the set and the encore is traditionally a time for the musicians to take a breather, so maybe I shouldn’t expect too much—but I don’t feel like Kath has been doing much work in the first place.
During the break before the first encore, Frances comes over to stand by Kath and they bob their heads in tandem as he plays. This is the first time I really view Kath in a positive manner, seeing as he just stands there while Frances flails around the stage. I resent him less for about three seconds here, seeing the way he and Frances easily connect. The first encore starts with “Femen” from 2016’s Amnesty (I), and here I find Frances to be at her most captivating vocally, amongst Kath’s synthesizer imitating organ music. Next, they play “Intimate” from Crystal Castles (II) as well as a cover of Platinum Blonde’s “Not In Love.” I should also mention the fact that multiple fights break out in front of me on the left side of the stage during “Intimate,” an irony not lost on me. This slightly sours the first encore for me.
Encore #2 is just two songs: “Concrete” and “Their Kindness Is Charade”. The latter is one of the songs I liked best from Amnesty (I), and I thought this was a good note to end on, as the track is a little softer and less hostile than some of the bigger Crystal Castles songs. It showcases Frances’ voice better than the more aggressive songs, too—those seem slightly better suited for Glass. Kath plays an outro as well and then, finally, everyone shuffles out of the venue. On the whole, I was thoroughly impressed by Frances’ performance, and encourage anyone who has the chance to see her and the rest of Crystal Castles perform. If you’re an early Crystal Castles fan like me who was worried the band would lose their spark without their star performer, you won’t be disappointed: Edith Frances fills the void. No Glass? No problem.
Listen to Amnesty (I) here: