Tuesday, July 8th, 2008
Photo by Frank Yang
I had thought that Ladytron’s Friday night show at Harbourfront Centre was crazy. Apparently I hadn’t seen anything yet. While that show was fairly packed to the gills, the band’s aloof aesthetic – fancy lightshow notwithstanding – was more suited to anything from head nodding to full body-bobbing, but not so much all-out flailing. That was for Saturday.
For the final night of the Beats, Breaks & Culture festival, the Harbourfront mainstage played host to up-and-coming party/hip-hop duo Thunderheist and already-arrived, buzzy like a broken synth, local heroes (or local villains depending on your personal position on intellectual property rights), Crystal Castles. I didn’t really know either act going in – I’d heard some positive things about the former and though it’s been nigh-impossible to avoid hearing both positive and negative things about the latter (not that they made a good first impression when they bailed on playing our day show at SxSW, but I digress), I’d only actually sat down to listen to their self-titled debut a few days ago. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Thuderheist were up first and while I will cite my usual disclaimer that I’m not a hip-hop guy and thus not really one who should be offering reviews of such, I’ve seen enough hip-hop live to know when it’s good and when it’s not and while Thunderheist weren’t the best I’ve seen, they were pretty good. Frontwoman Isis kept the energy high playing to all sides of the stage and brought out a trio of b-girl dancers to mix it up at a few points through the set, while DJ Graham put together some interesting beats that tended towards the lo-fi, fuzzy end of things. Entertaining stuff, and bonus points to Graham for continuing to spin records between sets, keeping the audience hepped up until the headliners.
Putting aside any ancillary controversy and considering the Crystal Castles record on its own merits, I rather surprisingly find myself rather partial to it, not least of all because it appeals to my inner 12-year old who spent far too many hours playing Nintendo games (and yet never beating them. I’ve still not finished Super Mario Bros and that may be the most personal thing I’m willing to admit in this blog). Marrying the fizzy 8-bit sounds of video games of yore with basic yet insistent beats, buoyant melodies and a slightly unhinged singer seems like a simple recipe but it’s also an effective one. Some to much of it is repetitive but those bits are replaced by something equivalently catchy before it overstays its welcome. In short, I get why people like Crystal Castles but only after experiencing it live do I understand why people are going batshit for them.
Taking the stage fashionably late (of course), Ethan Kath on synths and a hired drummer worked the audience, looking like Hipster Runoff come to life and already frothing with anticipation, into a further frenzy. From the photo pit, I had two thoughts – first, how glad I was that there was a sturdy metal fence between me and them, and second, I had no idea how I was going to get out of there intact. But thoughts of self-preservation vanished when the crowd somehow reached another level of volume – singer Alice Glass had finally come onstage. Game on.
Some preliminary research showed that shooting Crystal Castles, photographically speaking, was like shooting a single fish in a huge black ocean. Glass never stops moving – bounding across the stage, onto the monitors, into the crowd, and illumination was more often than not only a strobe light and pointed in the wrong direction, no less. She’s exponentially more the focal point live than on record, where she’s often buried in the mix or otherwise obscured, and the combination of her energy, the music turned up loud, the freaky lights and the audience collectively losing their shit made it feel less like a conventional concert than… I don’t know what it felt like. Super Mario on meth, coke and acid simultaneously. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if Glass had leapt into the air, punched an invisible block and grabbed the giant mushroom hidden within to grow to twice her size. It was absolutely nuts, and with that overall experience I can understand people walking (staggering) away from a show like this feeling like they’ve just witnessed the second coming. More than likely they’ve actually suffered a concussion from guy beside them with the porno ‘stache and shutter shades elbowing them in the head, but hey – six of one, half dozen of the other.
I didn’t actually stay to the end of the show, though from the sounds of this eye review, I might have almost. By the time I’d fought my way out of the pit and the crowd, I had a dead battery, shot about 200 completely black frames and felt like I’d been through a war. Though I said that it’s the live experience that’d probably make believers out of most, I don’t think I ever need to experience that again. But I likely will listen to the album again. Go figure.
Photos: Crystal Castles, Thunderheist @ Harbourfront Centre – July 5, 2008
MP3: Crystal Castles – “Untrust Us”
MP3: Thunderheist – “Jerk It”
Video: Crystal Castles – “Courtship Dating”
Now if popular opinion were the only yardstick that mattered, then I’d continue to be talking about Crystal Castles in the context of the just-announced Polaris Music Prize shortlist, but as it happens the controversial duo were shut out of the top ten. Instead, the records that will be vying for the title of the best record in Canada and the big $20,000 cheque that comes along with it are:
Black Mountain / In The Future / MP3: “Tyrants”
Basia Bulat / Oh My Darling / MP3: “In The Night”
Caribou / Andorra / MP3: “Melody Day”
Kathleen Edwards / Asking For Flowers
Holy Fuck / LP / MP3: “Lovely Allen”
Plants & Animals / Parc Avenue
Shad / The Old Prince / MP3: “I Don’t Like To”
Stars / In Our Bedroom After The War / MP3: “The Night Starts Here”
Two Hours Traffic / Little Jabs / MP3: “Stuck For The Summer”
The Weakerthans / Reunion Tour / MP3: “Sun In An Empty Room”
I’m actually rather surprised at the results of the short list – though only two of my five submissions, even after long list revisions, made the finalists, I’m passingly to very well acquainted with nine of the ten. What this says to me is that the cosmos of critical taste in this country is aligning with mine. Excellent. And now, of course, the discussion turns from “who’s going to make the shot list” to “who’s going to win the prize?” with a brief stopover in “why in hell did/didn’t [insert name here] make the list?”. And speculation on who will win is really pointless – the way the prize is set up, where a final jury of 11 is sequestered away on the eve of the award ceremony (September 29) to deliberate until a consensus is reached, any combination of the 178 jurors could reach a different conclusion. Even if you think there’s a no-brainer best album out of the bunch – and for the record, I don’t though right now my gut is saying Black Mountain might take it – if it doesn’t have a few zealous supporters on that final jury, it won’t get the nod. But as it stands, we’ll have almost three full months of discussion and debate (or indifference) before a record is crowned.
The National Post, London Free Press and The Montreal Gazette talks to a couple of the nominees about getting the nod, Chart has video interviews with the two of my nominees who made the cut – Basia Bulat and Two Hours Traffic – and over at Stille Post, a discussion about the nominations very quickly turns into a demonstration of why Crystal Castles might have gotten the snub and then gets back to complaining about everything about the list and the prize in general.