The Art and Performance of Alice Glass

Lead singer of the band “Crystal Castles,” Alice Glass is probably best known for her raucous vocals on tracks such as “Doe Deer” or the self-referential “Alice Practice,” the single which first drew attention to the band in 2004. What sets her apart from other female vocalists, even taking into account the Riot Grrrl movement, is the feral, supernatural quality to her performances.

[Disclaimer: the music is LOUD, and epileptics should avoid these videos. Any interpretation is my own and completely speculative. All lyrics are from the official band website.]

Shrouded in heavy fog and lit by strobes, Alice seems to emerge on-stage, breaking into spasmodic convulsions, pacing to steady, insistent beats, or standing mute, her foot propped on an amplifier and hand stretched towards the audience. The band is marked by contrasts, and Alice is as likely to lull the audience into stupor as she is to break into frenzied screams. The music itself is designed to overwhelm the audience, flooding them with 8-bit glitches and strange, powerful drones.

While Alice is not classically trained, and while few would describe her voice as pleasant, Ethan Kath (the second member of the band) sometimes modifies her voice into a beautiful, if incoherent, element of the music, as here on “Crimewave”.

 

What may not immediately clear to listeners is the intentionality behind Alice’s lyrics, mostly due to the fact that you can hardly understand them. Like other contemporary artists (Mary Pearson of “High Places”, or Clair Boucher of “Grimes”) Alice has adopted reverb effect as an essential part of her act. I love reverb myself, but feel that it can be hit and miss. Some artists, such as Animal Collective, create an expansive, choir-like sound that elevates the music itself, while others seem to hide behind obscurity. What’s impressive to me is that a desperate force conveys itself in Alice’s voice whether it is understood or not, as on this unreleased track, “YES/NO”:

 

Here and elsewhere a recurring theme of Alice’s appears: a strained father/daughter relationship, at times being very intimate. Lyrics from the final track of the band’s first album, a shoegaze piece titled, “TELL ME WHAT TO SWALLOW”:

“Through the wall he threw me
I know he’d never hurt me
Daddy watch me sleeping
I’ve been praying for you silently.

Daddy’s love makes me whole
Without him I’m insecure
The only girl he’d ever love
Is one that smells so pure.

 

It’s hard to reconcile the track’s sonic texture, and the speaker’s tone about her relationship with her father, with the lyrics themselves. The ominous title lends the track a sexual dimension, especially referring to the father’s voyeurism and the purity of his daughter. Alice revisits purity and its feminine associations in the band’s third album, entitled “III”, especially on tracks like “Plague.”

I need you pure I need you clean…/

Virgin cells to penetrate
Too premature to permeate
They can’t elucidate
Never thought I was the enemy

I am the plague.

 

And on Baptism, where Alice attacks a more general, systemic “Father”:

Hold my head under water
Take a breath for the Father
Learn to love. Lessons repeating
The Chronicles are so misleading.

Though buried in subjective reference, anointment and the need for redemption come up repeatedly in her tracks: she is marked by her sex, called to be cleansed and purified. The patriarchal figure is often described in religious terms, and in the band’s third album, through its manifest acts. In Plague, we are unsure whether she describes herself as the virus, or if this is a narrative foisted on her by larger forces, but she appears to become the scapegoat for the inequities of society. What’s clear, though, is that the consciousness of the speaker grows in every album. It never abandons its introspective tone, but does increasingly try to draw the audience into its world.

Some critics have suggested that Crystal Castles distorts their lyrics out of contempt for the listener, or that the band is deliberately trying to alienate their audience through unrelenting noise. I’m not so sure. For me, whether a song is distinguished by aggressive vocals or a plaintive melody, Glass is earnest and authentic. Her style may not be suited to all tastes, but I think that’s its appeal. If you take time to decipher the coded lyrics, to try and understand her, the music is rewarding.

This is just my take. What do you think about the band/reverb/performance?

– David Antony Pulido

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