Alice Glass has never been concerned with making music that’s easy to listen to. As one half of electronic duo Crystal Castles, she co-created three albums of frenetic and often unsettling dance tracks characterised by warped, frantic production and her high-pitched, distorted vocals. Crystal Castles pushed the boundaries of what electronic music could sound like and what subject matter it could embrace. At the group’s heart, hidden behind countless layers of impenetrable synth textures and spiky electronic stabs, lay a genuine concern for the human condition. They were a band that injected empathy into electronica, even if you had to dig a fair bit to find it.
Now removed from Crystal Castles, and following a series of online spats with former bandmate Ethan Kath, Glass has released her debut EP. In its pulsing, juddering sound, the eponymous record is similar to Glass’s work with Crystal Castles, only now Glass’s distinctive vocals are even more prevalent. While in the past they were often distorted past the point of decipherability – or completely absent – here, they command our attention throughout, sitting proudly front and centre. With Kath previously having made the extremely dubious claim that Glass played no role in any of the group’s most famous tracks, the decision to put her voice in such a central position feels more than a little pointed.
Alice Glass is exactly the uncompromising, relentless and haunting EP you’d expect from music’s most ferocious frontwoman. Although in many ways, it exceeds expectations. Massively. Sure, the glitchy, panic-attack-inducing sound is largely the same as the claustrophobic buzz of Crystal Castles, but this is far more than a continuation – or a rehashing – of the Crystal Castles formula.
The proof is found beneath the apocalyptic blare of the music and embedded in the album’s lyrics that deal with themes of abuse, fear and despair. Before the album’s release, Glass released a track named ‘Stillbirth’, a raging wall of sound about an abusive relationship. Though ‘Stillbirth’ is absent from Alice Glass, its themes remain present on every track.
‘Without Love’ sets the tone for an EP that is unerringly emotional. Glass questions her self-worth – a recurring theme throughout the record – before addressing her abuser directly with the question “How are you going to lie about me now?” Despite its typically fraught and sinister arrangement, it’s the most accessible track on the EP, the repetitive hook resembling something vaguely poppy, albeit coloured by intensely sinister overtones.
From here on in, Alice Glass sets out to unsettle and harrow. Never is this done with more precision than on the hard-hitting ‘Natural Selection’. Glass’s muffled screeches penetrate blasts of industrial noise, her scream of “Get the fuck off of me / Get the fuck out of me” immediately calling to mind images of rape. The track is splintered by roars of distorted electronics that suggest violence and struggle, Glass’s wails fighting to puncture the snarling crashes of sound that come in relentless waves.
While Glass’s lyrics are obscured on several tracks, such as the driving ‘Blood Oath’, she allows herself prolonged periods of clarity on the likes of ‘Forgiveness’, ‘Without Love’ and closing track ‘The Altar’. This willingness to expose herself is refreshing. When Glass steps out of the imposing shadow of the electronic blare, the anguish of her lyrics is laid bare. Glass makes frequent references to feeling trapped, both physically and in a cycle of self-loathing. There is the unshakeable sensation that something deeply unpleasant is lurking within the darkness of the cold, electronic beats, something that could lunge out and swallow Glass’s often delicate vocals at any minute. And throughout the EP, she does undergo several swallowings and regurgitations, her voice clear and precise at one moment and then devoured and stifled the next.
This looming dread that stalks the entirety of the EP culminates in the unsettling lullaby of ‘The Altar’, in which Glass reminds herself “Somewhere else someone else feels worse,” her voice completely naked for the first time, fragile but determined. “All your regret cannot be reversed,” she repeats as the track fades out, making for a pessimistic conclusion to a deeply unnerving collection of songs.
On her debut EP, Alice Glass proves that she was more than Crystal Castles’s vocalist, delivering eight intense, personal tracks that are challenging to the point of upsetting in their sheer rawness. There’s little to find solace in here – save for the fact Glass has left the abusive relationship behind – but Alice Glass is nonetheless a gut-achingly affecting sucker punch of unrestrained electronica that unnerves and compels in equal measure. It’s an EP that stays with you long after its final note and one that, with its unfettered, feral energy could – fittingly – break glass.