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Lollapalooza 2013: Friday Recap

With Lollapalooza kicking off on Friday, my goal is to bring you the best possible coverage of the festival to help you get an impression of what it’s like to be there, and comment on some of the amazing slash not so amazing things I see. Traditionally in the past that means writing somewhat lengthy recaps of each day to describe all the action. Well, this year I’ve decided to do something a little different. I’m keeping the daily summaries very short, and will expand upon them at the end of the weekend with a lengthy final writeup. Basically, I’m taking my Twitter impressions and giving you a little bit (but not much) more. That said, here’s the bands I saw on Day 1, and my lightning quick thoughts on all of their sets.

San Cisco are a band with plenty of mediocre indie pop songs, but it’s sunny out & they’re fun, so who cares? A great way to start the festival (to a degree), and if everyone’s enjoying themselves, far be it from em to call this bad.

After a somewhat slow start to their set, Deap Vally really stepped it up and brought some great rock ‘n roll to their Lolla. Nice work, ladies. The duo crafts what basically amount to party and heavy drinking songs under the guise of a Black Keys/White Stripes garage rock/blues combo, and while early afternoon on a Friday isn’t exactly the best time for such debauchery, the crowd still seemed receptive to their charms.

Almost as if by prophecy, rain clouds rolled in and it began to drizzle in time for the start of Ghost B.C.‘s set. Thankfully for everyone in the crowd, it was only a brief, five minute light rain and the only precipitation that would hit Grant Park on Friday. In terms of the band though, they came out in their traditional black hooded robes and skeleton cardinal outfits and did some spectacular work moving beyond the mere theatrics of their performance and turning in a precise, enjoyable set of Swedish metal.

Jessie Ware‘s set was a fair amount of fun. Though her songs aren’t always the most energetic, her enthusiasm gave them a much needed boost. She was super friendly with the crowd, and in turn the crowd was super friendly to her. Smiles and light dancing abound, Ware charged through her debut album and certainly helped me to see it in a new light.

For the first time ever, I watched a full Crystal Castles set. Generally speaking, I had a blast. Alice Glass is hardcore. She came out on stage drinking straight from a bottle of Jameson and smoking a cigarette, then proceeded to crawl to the microphone like she could barely make it there. But she as usual, she wound up the focal point of the set, dancing and tossing a microphone stand around. Twice she attempted to crowd surf. The first time her microphone got detached and she has to abort the song and get back to the stage, but the second time she almost literally walked on top of people and kept singing at the same time. There was a big crowd and they loved every second of it. Even the cuts from their relatively weak third album sounded pretty good live.

Attempted to watch some of Imagine Dragons‘ set, but the crowd was so huge I could barely hear and certainly couldn’t see the band. So I left. I had a similar experience during M83 on the same stage at Lolla last year, but this time was even worse. Apparently the stage lost power after two songs and it took 10 minutes to restart it, but I was long gone by that time. It may as well have lost power from the very start, since I was so crushed into a spot so far away it was near impossible to hear anyways.

The Disclosure dance party at Lolla was absolutely one of the day’s highlights. Jessie Ware had to prep for her aftershow later that evening so couldn’t be there to do her vocals live for her guest track, but the duo just played back the recorded vocals from the record, along with those of AlunaGeorge and a host of other guests on their debut album. Though they were triggering those samples and some beats via laptop, they also tried their best to “perform” via some additional live drums and bass. It all worked pretty well, but I think nobody in the crowd really cared. All they wanted to do was dance.

New Order‘s Lolla set was almost exactly the same as the one I saw them do in Chicago a few months ago. Same backing videos, nearly the same stage banter, and the arrangements of their greatest hits hasn’t really changed either. As such, to me it was like watching a rerun of a TV show I love. It doesn’t take away from your love, you just know what’s coming and are probably only watching because there’s nothing better on. But for those that hadn’t seen New Order in awhile (or ever), this was a treat, and another dance party.

They should’ve put Chance the Rapper on a bigger stage at Lolla. The BMI stage was packed beyond packed for his set, and the crowd went so far back they spilled into some of the main walkways of Grant Park. Because the BMI stage is the smallest stage, you couldn’t see much unless you were really close. But the audio was crisp all the way back, and you could tell it was a strong performance simply by listening. Chance seemed overwhelmed by the crowd, and also equally appreciative. At the end of his set he tried to crowd surf to the back of the massive crowd while riding inside of an inflatable kiddie pool. He didn’t make it very far. Oh well.

Finally, it was a treat to see Nine Inch Nails again. Trent Reznor knows how to put on a live show better than anyone I can think of, and NIN’s headlining set was a feast for both the eyes and the ears. The interplay of shadows, the blinding columns of light, the fierce, attack dog way he tears apart every one of his songs with his band is nothing short of mindblowing. There were 3 songs off the band’s forthcoming record that were performed last night, and all sounded great. I was hoping for some off-kilter, reworked renditions of some popular NIN classics, but unfortunately only “Sanctified” got that treatment and nothing else. Still, “Closer,” “Head Like A Hole,” “Terrible Lie,” and all the others retain their power. It doesn’t feel like the band has been gone at all, though this was their first North American show in four years. Welcome back, Trent.

Album Review: Crystal Castles – (III) [Fiction/Casablanca/Universal Republic]

Crystal Castles make songs that are so beat and synth intensive, it’s tempting to think that the duo just sits in front of a computer and pastes a bunch of samples together underneath Alice Glass’ vocals. That dark wave sound has served them well through two full lengths, as they’ve also gone from a small and obscure act to powerful stars of the electronica world in a very short time period. Their success has been a bit perplexing too, because of how experimental and weird their music can get. If you listen to a lot of what’s popular in EDM these days, whether you include or exclude dubstep, most everything is built on similar principles and structures that keep ears pleased and bodies moving. Crystal Castles defy that logic by embracing the abrasive and muddled. They turn left when expectation tells them to go right. The critical acclaim that’s been heaped on their last two efforts Crystal Castles and (II) is understandable because they stand out in innovative and exciting ways. When Glass breaks out her high pitched scream and is subsequently drowned in a digital bath, it’s noticeably uncomfortable but great once you get used to it. In today’s hyperactive music scene, most don’t invest the time to adapt their tastes, so that so many have done so for this group is in part a testament to their excellence. Now we’re blessed with their third full length, appropriately titled (III), and it continues to try and take this odd musical conversation to a new level.

First of all, Glass and her counterpart Ethan Kath claim to have traded in their computers and gear while in the studio so as to step out of their comfort zones and into fresh concepts. Such a gamble winds up doing very little for them, because from note one of opening track and first single “Plague” you can’t confuse these songs for anything but Crystal Castles. Part of it is Glass’ distinct vocal approach, her yelps so covered in distortion that you can rarely understand a word. The other part is Kath’s staccato synth work, which is equally distinctive. So with or without their old gear and computer assistance they still find those same sonic paths, though there’s a certain focus that comes into play on this new record that we’ve never experienced with them before. Like a live band that’s just starting out, the more times they do something, the better they get at it. Three albums in, they know the drill and are now efforting to perfect it. The problem with that is their innovative tricks are no longer so innovative, and popular music has caught up with those sensibilities. In other words, Crystal Castles run the risk of becoming irrelevant if they don’t continue to adapt. For now, (III) streamlines what they’ve already got going, and it makes for their most easily digestible record to date.

Of course just because the album goes down smooth doesn’t mean it’s some cheery dance record you can get euphoric with in a club somewhere. On the contrary, beneath the glossy exterior of these songs are deeply troubled and disturbing lyrics about genocide, disease, corruption and oppression. It’s near impossible to understand most of what’s being said thanks to filters and distortion, but technically speaking it’s there. It begs the question – if Alice Glass makes some important statements about our world but nobody can make out what she’s saying, do we really care? From a different perspective, if we could make out every word, would it change how we listen to this record? Well, when the words can’t convey a clear message, the music itself does. “Wrath of God” comes across as the title suggests, as does “Violent Youth” and “Child I Will Hurt You.” Songs like “Pale Flesh” and “Mercenary” are witchy and wrought with a feeling of dread. Even the songs that are easiest on the ears like “Kerosene” and “Affection” carry with them a sense of despondency that’s not exactly charming. So though (III) isn’t as instrumentally experimental and challenging as the band’s previous two efforts, their approach and subject matter gets darker and more alien to offset it. The trade-off turns out to be not worth as much as you might expect, suggesting that maybe now is the time Crystal Castles need to really sit down and figure out how they’re going to proceed from here. The money is reasonably good and their popularity continues to rise, so maybe that will blind them from the truth that their novelty is starting to wear thin. The quality of what they’re offering can’t be considered poor by any stretch of the imagination, but you can see the sword of Damocles hanging above their heads and the winds shifting to some crazier and more fun EDM acts. Perhaps that’s the real reason why this record is so foreboding.

Crystal Castles – Plague
Crystal Castles – Wrath of God

Crystal Castles – Affection

Buy (III) from Amazon

Album Review: Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II) [Fiction/Last Gang/Universal Motown]

Crystal Castles is a duo that’s immensely difficult to like. They go out of their way to make divisive and challenging electronica music, and as a result many of their choices are blatantly uncommercial and tough to sit through. It’s not quite on the level of listening to somebody get stabbed to death on tape, but many of the songs do have frayed, jagged edges and attempt to violate your ears before asking permission to do so. Disturbing as that might sound, and you can get that feeling just listening to it, there’s also a strange brilliance to it pushing on you demanding that it not be ignored. They seem interested in taking things to the next level sonically, and across their two albums, they seem to have succeeded. That success has come at a cost though, and the blame primarily lies on Crystal Castles themselves. In support of their debut self-titled album, there were a few incidents at shows where singer Alice Glass or other touring members got into physical altercations with security guards, venue staff or fans. Their anger management issues earned them a fair share of detractors, but they were essentially doing what they do in their music, which means not taking shit from anybody.

Almost as if inviting you to be confused, Crystal Castles have chosen to make their second album self-titled after their first one already was. To avoid confusion, just be aware that the new album features a young girl standing in a graveyard. That cover very much hints at what the music associated with it sounds like. A number of the tracks are haunting and scary, with a fair amount of menace hovering over the entire record. Compared to their debut record, what’s lost is a fair amount of the brash in-your-face punk aesthetic, traded in for something decidedly more cohesive and ambient. The move in that direction is a smart one, as the chiptune, 8-bit lo-fi electro compositions that littered their first album are now seen as something of a lynchpin introduction to the genre of music so many are called glo-fi or chillwave or whatever. Crystal Castles could very well have followed up with a similar sounding album, but that would have meant continuing to play along with a sonic style that has become one of the hottest trends in music today. Ethan Kath and Alice Glass prefer to always be forward-thinking, and they prove their mettle with the new album. The 8-bit compositions are still present, but not nearly as much as before, and the jekyll and hyde approach of feedback-laden guitar songs placed next to more quieter material has almost entirely disappeared as well. In fact, outside of the opening track “Fainting Spells” and closer “I Am Made of Chalk”, much of the rest of the album is surprisingly easy to take in and embrace as dance floor fodder. That might give some reason to pause and consider whether Crystal Castles have gone soft, but there are just enough fucked up elements in most every track to capture your imagination and create something that’s just uncommercial enough to give you a moment of pause.

One of the most exciting things about any individual Crystal Castles song is to hear exactly what has been done to Alice Glass’s vocals. On opener “Fainting Spells” she moves close to chipmunk territory by increasing the pitch and speed of her singing. She’s completely indecipherable and screaming mindlessly on the guitar-heavy “Doe Deer”, which with its lo-fi leanings is probably the closest sonic match to something from Crystal Castles’ debut album. Given that the distorted synth in that song is pulled from an old unreleased song, it makes more sense why it’d sound like their earlier stuff. “Year of Silence” foregoes Glass’s vocals to sample a line from Sigur Ros’ “Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur” – to good effect. On “Violent Dreams”, Glass takes her vocals into the extremely deep and booming male voice range, to the point where her singing is reminiscent of Karin Dreijer’s on a number of songs by The Knife and Fever Ray. “Not In Love” works the vocal angle between computerized singing and employing Auto-Tune, and it’s far more interesting than you might expect. But the most fascinating few tracks are when the vocals act as background fodder for the other instruments and not vice versa. “Birds” and “Intimate” both shove Glass’s vocals so far back in the mix that her words are completely indecipherable, and everything else sounds louder and up front. When “I Am Made of Chalk” arrives to close out the album, you’re left questioning whether the song has vocals at all. What it sounds like is somebody trying to sing you a song while they’re underwater and you’re above the surface, only they’re drowning in a digital sea. It’s an immensely strange way to end an overall strange album, but so oddly appropriate at the exact same time.

Fans of the first Crystal Castles album might find themselves having a hard time dealing with the slight shift in sonic direction for this sophmore effort. What the new album lacks in harsh, cutting moments it more than makes up for with stronger overall compositions and thematic solidarity. On top of it, they’re still trying to push the envelope and try new things to advance the state of electronica as we know it. They’re succeeding too, and even those who were turned off by the first album or their controversial live show might consider giving this duo a second chance. Those who’ve completely ignored Crystal Castles up to this point might also be wise to give them a try. Here’s a group, controversial though they might be, that has clearly shown after two albums that they more than know what they’re doing. Like The Knife’s “Silent Shout”, the second Crystal Castles album is a dark and moody masterpiece that will more than likely spawn a host of imitators in the coming years. If you’re willing to give it a fair shot, it might just wind up one of your favorite albums of the year. I know it’s one of mine.

Buy “Crystal Castles” (II) from Amazon
Buy it from iTunes

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