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By Mike Seeley
8-Bit of Fun
Crystal Castles' nu-rave is an Atari Teenage Riot
Crystal Castles avoid interviews thesedays, probably because talking about his brand of video-game techno has only made main man Ethan Fawn seem even more insouciant.
He's probably too young to remember the mid-'90s slogan "shut up and dance," but that's what Crystal Castles' music is best for—even if dancing these days consists of skinny indie-rock kids pumping their fists while watching Crystals play live, which is really Fawn tweaking already-tweaked synths and singer Alice Glass alternately screaming, reciting, singing, and moaning like a gene-spliced X-Ray Spex and Flying Lizards. But it's done in a kind of you-had-to-be-there way, which is why word-of-mouth and not aging hipster press humps are the Crystals' preferred method of dissemination.
And you can't really blame them. Take the time Fawn told a hack their first single was an accident.
"Alice Practice" supposedly was the result of an engineer recording them as they were warming up to record their real songs. Nothing new, mind you—see Poison's "Unskinny Bop." The result was so thrilling—Fawn's 8-bit video-game synths lapping manically at Glass' distorted, stream-of-conscious vocals—that the U.K. label Merok released it as the group's debut A-side, and it sold out its 500-copy pressing in three days.
"The interviewer quoted me as saying the whole band was an accident. As if we fell in a keyboard and 40 songs just appeared," he says in a Q&A released by the band's publicist.
But part of Crystal Castles' genius is that their sound does sort of sound like an accident. As Fawn puts it, "Our music isn't influenced by anyone. In our heads, what we're doing is completely original. If we're wrong and someone else is doing this out there, that's fine, too. We don't care." He also says they didn't get their name from the Atari video game of the same moniker, the same way Crystal Method still maintain they're not named after meth. At least Crystal Gayle is telling the truth; she's just named after a lot of air.
Wherever they got their name (She-Ra's lair from Masters of the Universe, apparently), the Crystals, like the Ramones or Sigue Sigue Sputnik before them, sound as new as they do uncannily familiar, comfortably nostalgic, but adrenalin-spikingly next.
Fawn knows his synth pop and his Suicide; listening to the Castles' handful of EPs, you can hear the opaque new wave of fellow Canadian Solvent, the raunchy hook of I-F's "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" and, most notably, the coal-black irony of Detroit's Adult. Crystal Castles are, after all, from Toronto, rave capital of North America and home to evolving electronic music, like the thrilling tech-jam-improv group Holy Fuck.
On their singles so far, Crystal Castles have shown a wisdom beyond their years. There's the Klaus Nomi-ish echo falsetto Glass puts over the blippy bump of "Air War," the so-cool-it's-cold new wave detachment of "Crimewave," the bangin' retardo-gabber of "Xxzxczx Me," with its omnivorously nihilistic chorus, "All I want is everything."
But as sly, spontaneous or subversive as Crystal Castles' m.o. actually is—Fawn describes his aesthetic as "large, shiny chunks of vomit"—it has found that mad-for-it superfan of which subgenres and trend-jocking teen shows are made, at least in the U.K. The Union Jacked press have pegged Crystal Castles king and queen of the overlapping 8-bit and nu-rave genres, alongside acts such as the Klaxons, whose "From Atlantis to Interzone" Castles famously remixed, pitching it up and making it funny-fierce with noise. Fawn and Glass were featured on the U.K. show Skins—a kind of The O.C. meets Trainspotting—without jumping the shark; YouTube is still ripe with raw fan videos of their songs, even ones for their remixes, including their moody, blip-tastic take on Good Books' "Leni."
Now, with their first domestic full-length coming out on Last Gang, Fawn and Glass are seeing if America will bite. When asked if the U.K. nu-rave fervor has a chance of spreading to the U.S., Fawn says, "That question reminds me of herpes."
Ironically, in the middle of an extensive U.S. tour, they may take the piss in interviews, but they're not taking their Valtrex to stop the spread. The Crystal Castles message in its truest form is live, where Fawn and Glass are an Atari teenage riot in the purest sense, tapping into the primal binary blur of the early techno, born as it was at late-night parties on redlining sound systems. At their best, Crystal Castles stir the pot where once Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash" or Plastikman's "Panik Attak" came to a boil. Of course, Fawn categorically dismisses this notion, crystal clearly: "Nothing from our youth has influenced our sound. We are influenced by change." Shut up and dance, then.
Crystal Castles perform with Sparrow Love Crew, Dan Oh, Dan Sena, Mashed Potatos and others at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $15.