“Are you okay?” I drew away my stained left hand and took hers with the other. Blood streamed uncontrollably, mingled with sweat—left eye and mouth obscured in red visions. I held that hand tight, “I’m alright, Alice.” Blasting shudders of bass broke out over the bank of quiet. Alice Glass, Crystal Castles’ vocalist, had crouched low on her haunches to inspect me and now, alerted, stood and walked into smoke with a pained wail.
This was 2008, my first Crystal Castles show. A doorman at Richard’s on Richards, a venue now paved for condos, ushered me out the front. “You’re an AIDS hazard,” he shouted. I walked unsteadily to my friend Caitland, propped against the door of her car we had driven up in from Seattle. When we were in middle school, Caitland would walk out of class with her cigarettes in hand, make me go with her outside to an alley. The songs of her all-girl band The Histronics, Siouxsie Sioux and PJ Harvey played on the car radio filled me with some terrified, lustful wonder and leased aggression. Alice Glass seemed next in line to bear all those torches. It was, “raw girl,” I once said. Trading medical care for vanity, Caitland and I drove to buy a cheap disposable camera at the 7-11 and took pictures of my broken brow at our rented motel room.
Crystal Castles’ fans are drawn from the marginalized and the awkward, the young and the lost. I grew up plugged into the autistic architecture of the internet. I lived alone. All of Seattle did too. What should have been a source of support from the underground was a confluence of hatred for each other and themselves. Bicycle fetishists and sexualized nymphets in gold lamé leotards cavorted in pleasure domes of temporary intimacy. The underground was gazing backward for inspiration, playing along in the wake of generations long gone. Ethan Kath, Crystal Castles’ synthesist and producer, found Alice spitting in their faces, “spitting on legends, while shouting what I thought was beautiful poetry.”
Kath butchered electronics, harvested their sounds, and cleaned them in the vast river of one long sound wave. When he put down a track, it started there in the river, spit and spirit. A narrative was missing and was found in Alice, punk voice of a new generation. You didn’t dance to “Alice Practice”, so much as recoil. I was coursing a lightning strike: my body cracked back repulsively, hands splayed out in obscenity, teeth bared like a maniac. It is an album distinctly unpleasant in some places, invoking the anxiety of cities, taking its hands full of our mental illnesses.
Home once more in Seattle, I emailed the manager of Lies Records, their home label, subject line: “Bleeding for Alice.” An over enthusiastic boy had split open my brow with his forehead, I wrote: here’s a photo. Bleeding for Alice turned into the permanent guest list for what became my saga of 15 shows across seven countries. I’d see them play two, three, four gigs at a time, stretches of northern Scandinavia on long haul buses I could barely afford. I bought a leather jacket to keep me warm over nights and asked a friend to make it something I could relate to. I picked out a publicity photo of Alice Glass tonguing blood from Ethan’s chest. Traveling with a winter, spring, and early summer, I survived on virtually nothing—bus depot in Cologne, vandalized door to a rooftop in Sweden, Norwegian sailing boat.
Why put myself through all this? Crystal Castles tapped into a nerve that was not directly expressible, could not be relieved through activism. The counterfeit punks pumped up in splendor, in spiked-up souvenirs knew it; the face of a life of authenticity with authentic things revealed to be so totally without. It was a soul sickness, terminal. Confusion without cause or cure. You will recognize this confusion peering into yourself. Their honesty, their voice to this unbearable malaise, was an altar to which I gave up my worries of youth.
My head hung over the front rail of a converted factory floor, a month before their second album release. There were very few lights. Around them spanned a special kind of dark, heavy with wet breath and cigarette incense. I breathed raggedly, squeezed between tall muscular youth. My vision was going empty. I felt hard tips of nails on my skull, pushing my head back. A bottle of hard, cheap whiskey was at my lips. I revived to white flash pulses and the angelic procession of “Celestica”. The whiskey was new: Alice Glass had turned 21 sometime between Vancouver and now. Her voice that had been so plaintively human was drowning in electronics. This was the sound of Crystal Castles molting, drawing themselves into darkness.
The conjurer and the girl with the imperfect voice began to meditate—0n human cruelty and its disaffecting nothingness. Their second album is the result of a soul searching that has found nothing worth saving. Partly inspired by Louis Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, (II) is a work of despair. The fragile beauty of its melody is an illusion, a young model suffering under the brightwork of lights. When Alice’s voice is most strangled is when its lyrics are bleakest (a man without conscience knowingly spreads AIDS in “Intimate”) until at the album’s close they finally fall into screaming.
I was full of shame and disappointment sharing this passion of mine. With a lazy hand sweep of dismissal, I was waved off. Close friends: artists, musicians, I thought people with good taste, had heard somewhere from right types that this wasn’t a band for them. The appropriated artwork of a Madonna black eye, the canceled gigs were not the protestations of a band begging forgiveness. Too popular, they said. Too young, said others. The crowd at their shows were young and younger and wrestling with depression, despair, disaffection.
Youthful nihilism is at the heart of the second album. Alice urges in “Celestica” to “follow me into nowhere.” And later, admonishes us not to help her. It is a nihilism of beginnings as much as it is in maturity, the early schizophrenic breakdowns calming into a total resign. Nietzsche wrote that the nihilism he saw beginning, the fits of anxiety people had in place of meaning was incomplete, had just begun. Crystal Castles are its shepherds, archons of our shifting unease.
The hard strobes that winked a whole world in and out second to second, the true violence of the stage, presented an image of schizophrenia and mass confusion. If my generation is marked by any great thing, it is this passive confusion and non-commitment—the failed idiot protests of Occupy, many lovers without love.
Nihilism comes to exultant completion in their third album, (III). I had tremendous trouble with the more difficult (an absurd admission in the stark light of what I’ve weathered) tracks right up until now. I had more difficulty coming to terms with their anthemic size, the radical departure from stageless shows. I had seen Crystal Castles in every permutation over six years, from that first dreadful communication to a festival in the north of Denmark where now older, I threw myself in front of two girls of 16 threatened by the size a of a tripled crowd. Where I had received my first violence in seemed indistinct.
(III) may be the band’s most profound shift: (I) was a punk fuck you to the past, (II) a bleak sovereign. Ethan Kath constructs Glass’ voice in every instance to call out from that same smoke she walked into in Vancouver, a litany to abandon ourselves in abjection. Crystal Castles had at last become crusaders, Nietzsche’s “active nihilist” who “posits [her] own values and lives [her] life as a work of art.” The album’s most powerful tracks, “Plague”, “Wrath of God”, and “Transgender” all begin draped in mournful void, to which bass blasts move us to total bodily dysfunction and the profound pain of insight, what a Persian poet once declared, “the breaking of the shell that surrounds your understanding.” It is the realization of our potential by removing ourselves from the layers of structure that distort our vision. “Affection” compares this potential to a moth held in our hands, which we, “crush casually.”
Years upon years of my life were spent winding down into emotional desolation. That is the nature of it—to be brought to your knees and wonder in horror at its hardship, its cruelty, now or sometime further on. What brought me relief from my own journey to the end of the night was in seeing something honest and true, even if its truth was terrible in comprehension. The world has only to conclude in honesty. In their celebration to nothing, I found catharsis and an unrealized future, liberated from a false life, false gods, false traditions. Alice, in the same figure of sincerity and tenderness I saw in 2008, stepping out to a sea of faces in Norwich, held out a hand with a question: “You have so much potential, but what will you do with it?”