Crystal Castles, HEALTH

Mike Hughes 15/10/2010

Welcome to the onstage world of Alice Glass and Ethan Kath - for a few moments anyway. I've been trying forever to see Crystal Castles. Both their albums had me. I don't quite know why this particular set of bleeps and this girl singer. Hang on, yes I do, it's the way their souls are captured and let out bits at a time. That's on record anyway. Attempts at seeing them had consisted of Icelandic ash (missed gig) booked a holiday on the wrong dates (missed gig) and London Underground chaos (missed gig) : 0/3, must do better.
Therefore tickets for tonight were booked way in advance. Crystal Castles have a rep for being curmudgeonly with the press, I've read the interviews. A guy I know bagged 10 minutes 'interview' with Ethan and said 'thank god it wasn't 20'. So it was a bit of a hopeful punt to email their ever-so-nice PR and I fell off my chair when on the afternoon of the show I got approval to take photos.

The Roundhouse in Camden is a great venue, we got there early-ish but not enough for clinging to the barrier, the safest place to be at a gig like this. We endured the slight boredom of Team Ghost. Three lads up front strumming two guitars and a bass, then the next song was something the same, and the next one was a bit similar. They weren't unpleasant, but I gesticulated to Rosie (my faithful gig companion) "What are they for? What's their purpose?" It was lost on me. One of them is ex-M83, which just seems unlikely.

Next up were "HEALTH, from California..." I should listen to more music, I'd never given these more than a passing glance, apart from that track, 'Crimewave', which is somehow shared by this band and tonight's headliners. In some ways it was a very good thing that I'd paid such scant attention. I was totally unprepared for this mob who rocked me back on my heels, with a guitar player who did more than dance, he was the music. Do you remember those old Nike Air Jordan logos, where MJ is caught like a bent stick man in space? That was this guy tonight, dragged around like a rag doll on his own blast. The singing was curiously effete for a band that were so loud I could feel it vibrate my neck (that's a new one). Comedy moment was when some hip American teenagers who had slid in front of us started packing their ears with cotton wool. The girls did anyway, while their lovely vest clad boy companion packed his lugs with paper tissue - which mainly stuck out of his ears - so that he looked like Shrek. Mind you, I bet he can hear today which is more than I can. The not-so-comedy moment was the need of school children in the audience to start a slam dancing circle. Please don't think this is me being the grump, or maybe you should. I've been moshing and jumping ever since punk was a kid, and it's fine if it's about the music. This wasn't, it was just self centred twattery with no relevance to the band at all. My new business idea is to lease that spare unit next to the London Dungeon and let them all pay 50 pence to go in there and circle slam dance until they break their heads, I'll make a fortune. The band though, HEALTH, they were more than good, one of the better things I've seen this year. I was trying to decide how to describe their music and it is very definitely like sinews and gristle that have been ripped apart by hand.

It turns out Crystal Castles attitude to photographers wasn't quite so curmudgeonly, but was fairly unique, owing to Alice's need to be close to her audience. For her benefit, the gap in the photopit was occupied with a health and safety compliant orange coloured stepping block, and an taped arrow on the stage to show the way. The compromise was that we would be allowed to take snaps from the side of the stage, so about a dozen of us were penned outside and had to endure missing the thrilling crashing start of the gig and 'Fainting Spells' until we were led on to the stage itself, to stay behind another piece of tape. Of course it was impossible to get anything like decent photographs. What I experienced though, on the stage, was the view of the crowd desperate to get close, whilst Alice continually threw herself across their heads. The world up there was lit only by flickering strobes and a couple of times Alice retreated to the back of the stage to just sit or slump in the darkness with her pet bottle of Jack Daniels. It was difficult to see much at all, and I was surprised later to see that my camera had snagged a photo of Ethan with a guitar strapped on behind the synths tables, who'd have known? Three frantic songs later and I was even more convinced of the 'hooks in your skin' addiction of what Crystal Castles do with their audience. Time now to dump the cameras and get back in the crowd. I'd left Rose about three rows back with a cheery 'stay where you are, I'll get back to you'. I sounds unlikely but I managed to do this. As I dived in the first thing I noticed was how different they sound live. Which is a good thing in the main, to see it created anew, even if the vocoder was making Alice's voice come out a bit Donald Duck at times. As I pushed into the hot crowd I wished I'd taken off my trackie top but then didn't care, delirious to sweat it out, two arms in the air, finding I knew the songs and howling along. The sound came across in waves and Alice just kept it going continually, hiding on the stage then walking on the hands of the audience, seeming to fall into the crowd only to be pushed back up again. Drawn like a magnet, a guy next to me levitated onto the hands of strangers and moved like a snake towards Alice only to fall at the last hurdle and be pushed over into the pit. She is as compelling as a chimera that you are drawn to and want to possess. Looking around at the faces and feeling the crowd undertow, I was far from alone.
It's almost impossible to write about individual songs. If I had to pick, 'Baptism' was huge. 'Celestica' was just a monstrous event that set the entire crowd on fire and jumping. Coming before that, 'Alice Practice' was immense, but they were all moments of pre-climax in a long slow explosion.

In amongst the chaos and bottles of JD and scrounging a ciggy off the audience, Alice showed tenderness, or was it tease, coming and stroking the heads of the security guys down in front of the stage. I ended up soaked in other people's sweat, pressed between strangers and hanging limp over the barrier.

Unmissable, so much so that I'll be repeating it in another week in another town.

Set list : Fainting Spells / Baptism / Courtship Dating / Insectica / Doe Deer / Crimewave / Air War / Alice Practice / Black Panther / Celestica / Empathy / Reckless / Untrust Us / Intimate / Yes No