As a plume of blue smoke fills the stage, the sounds of the crowd’s familiar, fired-up “here we fucking go” chants are drowned out by an eerie panoply of choir noises, the upstarts of sinister synths.
Strobe lights come on in a dazzling, Lynchian flicker and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were being plunged into a techno surrealist video fantasy, instead of The Garage on a Monday night.
The gig begins with the mysterious DJ James Jameson; who, in a perfected state of moody, hoodie-clad concentration, performs a healthy set of ambient trance, blended with vocal samples and wispy hints of his own singing which drift in and out of an oceanic expanse of synths, crunchy bass and freaky electronic beats and bleeps.
Watching Crystal Castles perform is like dousing your head in a vat of acid and finding your brain suddenly aglow with wild, dark, maddening symphonies; you don’t get a series of discrete songs, you get thrown, for the space of an hour, into an alternate, coruscating world of sonic contortion.
Everything is intense from the get-go: amidst the flashing strobes, singer Edith Francis throws her limbs around, thrash-dancing as she tangles her flailing body around reels of microphone cord, emanating sufficient kinetic energy to get the crowd jumping around and fist-pumping to songs drawn from across the band’s four albums.
Francis’ heavily-treated voice ranges from cool and dream-pop sweet on ‘Char’, subtle and haunting on ‘Femen’, to warped and metallic on old-school favourite, ‘Crimewave’.
If Francis performs the role of mesmerising, demented punk pixie, spraying her onlookers with showers of water and delivering twisted lyrics alongside a hypnotic display of hair whips and brandished microphone stands, Ethan Kath is serene wizard of the decks, bouncing coolly along to his beats and occasionally making silent gestures which lead the crowd into a Satanic chorus of handclaps.
The duo definitely benefit from the addition of a live drummer, whose tightly pounding beats create a more filled-out sound, sharp and enthralling as lightning-struck waves.
Amidst the sea of roaring distortion, a solid back catalogue allows for moments of brilliance: standout tracks include ‘Baptism’, where the crowd scream over the evil thumping bass and celestial techno, the squishy, circling rhythms of ‘Char’ and the icy pop charm of ‘Celestica’, which sees Francis sing with scintillating longing, “follow me into nowhere,” to the backdrop of twinkling synths, thumping drums and lurid pink stage lights, which glimmer like sets of static television.
There is a sense of urgency to the set, owing perhaps to the visceral bass and synths, the insistent beats, the way that moments of instrumental transition between songs (in lieu of silence or stage chat) are more like slow-motion flows of white noise, soon to be broken by a new sequence of jarring and juddering sound.
As a result, it’s all over too soon and while the crowd begs for one more tune, Crystal Castles treat us to a generous encore, which closes with ‘Not in Love’.
While Francis is no Robert Smith (who provides the vocals for ‘Not in Love’ on the band’s second album), she confidently lives up to the legacy of former Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass, with a searing lyrical delivery that fittingly concludes a set marked by its energy, fury and erratic brand of noirish electro punk.
Combining the live dynamism of The Prodigy with the ethereal allure of original dream-pop darlings, Cocteau Twins (also a duo), it’s clear that despite the lineup shift, Crystal Castles have by no means lost their edge and in the process have stayed true to their roots.
Tonight’s gig, the first of their current European tour, promises an assured future for a sound which works with or without the magic vocoder, onstage and on record – while the band continue to have their sceptics, they certainly reward the true believers.
Words: Maria Sledmere
Photos: Aimee Boyle