Release Date: Nov 13, 2012
Record label: Casablanca
Genre(s): Electronic, Alternative/Indie Rock, Club/Dance, Indie Electronic
In 2006, after toiling for some years in a dire rock’n’roll band called Kill Cheerleader, Ethan Kath swapped his guitar for some keyboards, recruited an 18-year-old named Alice Glass from a Toronto noise band called Fetus Fatale, and went electro. Their early singles, ‘Alice Practice’ and ‘Courtship Dating’, were club music of sorts. But while dance music traditionally speaks of good times and euphoric abandon, Crystal Castles made it into something drained, damaged and nihilistic.
Every new album Crystal Castles releases is lacking one thing: a name. Each self-titled entry is instead branded with a number—a good choice, considering each feels like a chapter in the same book, rather than a new novel itself. The experimental electronica Canadian duo returns with (III), a 12-track album packed with impossibly catchy beats. In an effort to create a new sound, the band has traded in instruments used in previous albums, opting for new keyboards and pedals.
Before they take the stage around which some hundreds of people now crowd, Crystal Castles force their audience to look up at a photograph of a veiled Yemeni woman cradling her injured, naked son. Huge and luminous, the image has been stripped of its context, outlined like a logo in a void. It leers over throngs of anxious teenagers. It glows blacklight purple.
So it’s strange to say, then, that this is also an astonishingly…pretty record. Underneath all the menacing effects, Glass’ always-winsome “singing” voice has never conveyed such childlike sweetness and innocence. And Kath wrings the most exquisitely beautiful atmospherics from his machines (the ethereal “Child, I Will Hurt You” sounds as if lifted from the dreams of the most innocent of innocents).
“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being”—Albert Camus The long and winding road to Crystal Castles’ (III) has been one bizarre, beguiling ride. When they first arrived in their 8-bit, glitch-tech infancy they were one of the most truly despised ‘n’ divisive bands in town. Brilliantly so.
The general public usually favors female pop stars that are slightly unhinged yet proper, edgy with a theatrical wild streak. But put them in front of one who will show contempt for them and question their moral compass and you’ve instantly crossed the parameters of permissible behavior. That’s what makes Crystal Castles frontwoman Alice Glass such a compelling figure – she’s ferocious in her delivery, always confrontational in subject matter and unwilling to make herself an easy target – even to her most adoring fans.
“I’m one step away from being a vigilante to protect people and bring justice to the people I love. I’ve thought about it”– Alice Glass Crystal Castles are dying. Along with their previous albums, (III) is continually situated at the precipice of disintegration and disillusion, a death that is deterred. Whether it is the fuzzed-out sawtooth bass lines or the layers of reverb entombing Alice Glass’ vocals, Crystal Castles’ albums are in a state of ruins.
Ethan Kath (or whatever he's calling himself these days) claims that he instituted a no-computer policy for this album and recorded everything to tape using a one-take rule, but he's probably lying. In fact, III is cleaner and slicker than either of the two previous Crystal Castles albums, and the more radio-friendly sound suits the Toronto synth-punk band better than you'd think. It took me a few listens to accept the trance synth riffs that dominate, not to mention Alice Glass's increasingly melodic screeching, but the apocalyptic undertones are surprisingly effective with some sugar on top.
III's haunting cover photo of a Muslim woman protecting her son might seem initially like it was chosen just to get attention, but it's actually the perfect representation of the album's complex mix of bleakness and comfort. This is Crystal Castles' most serious set of songs yet, with a darker tone and streamlined sound that dovetails with its motifs of outsiders, injustices, and revolution. Ethan Kath and Alice Glass' second album showed the duo was expanding their 8-bit vocabulary, and that comes to fruition here, particularly on the album-opener "Plague" and "Wrath of God," where Glass' distant rage and Kath's shadowy, claustrophobic synths invert their previously fiery electro-punk into something colder and more lingering.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the cover of Crystal Castles' third album serves as a manifesto of their sound. It features an photograph taken by Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda, depicting a woman holding her son, who was exposed to tear gas during an anti-government protest in Yemen in October 2011. Through email interviews, frontwoman Alice Glass and producer Ethan Kath have admitted that (III) was influenced by governmental, religious and societal oppression.
Facebook is currently trying to convince us that it is like a swimming pool or a cake. Following this logic, that means buzz bands are like hot slices of pizza... It looks good, resembles what you want, you tell yourself and everyone at your table how great it is. You can’t wait to sink your teeth in, but then, when you bite down, you get burned! The magma-like tomato sauce of the second mouthful then burns your burn.
Crystal Castles seem to operate in a perpetual state of confrontation, conflict, and stress. That works in their favor as they face a new and strange set of challenges on their third album: Their brand of dark electro has proven so influential in recent years that it's put them in danger of sounding normal in 2012. Their first two records were explosive, unpredictable, and found them living on borrowed time, trying to outlast the blog-house fad that spawned their earliest singles and outstrip a run of bad publicity caused by early copyright disputes and cancelled gigs.
Listening to Alice Glass describe Crystal Castles' third album doesn't exactly get you in the mood for party jams. "Oppression is a theme, in general … " she begins, before adding: "It feels like the world is a dystopia where victims don't get justice and corruption prevails." Achieving such a laid-back, cheery vibe involved the band trading in the tools (keyboards, FX pedals) used on I and II in order to start afresh with a new palette of sounds. And yet the most affecting songs on III don't sound like a band raging at the outside world, but rather experiencing a very personal kind of misery.
Christopher Nolan summarized the arc of his Dark Knight franchise as ?Fear. Chaos. Pain.? Crystal Castles’ latest self-titled album, standing on its own, can boast a similar delineation. The group has always been a fervent act, comprised of challenging disharmonies, soaring electronic melody, and a gutter punk ethos.
Growing as a group, especially when that growth is angled toward the nebulous notion of maturity, can be a tricky business. For Crystal Castles, growth involves a shift away from the manic density of their early material, manifested by recording the songs on III live in single takes, ditching much of the synths and loops, and capturing everything on analog tape. More directly, this means replacing their distinctive, pinball-hectic 8-bit sound with something more simple and direct, resulting in an album that prizes carefully structured clarity over furious torrents of chunky digital noise.
When they released their first album in 2008, this duo's glitch-riven onslaught of noise spliced with melody seemed like music to bend your mind to. Now though – giving strength to that gloomy notion that most bands get more boring as they go on – it sounds more like music to get off your face to; there's very little on this third LP that could qualify as "experimental". Track after track leans heavily on the relentless four-to-the-floor of trance, with Alice Glass's yelped vocals muffled under a weight of sound that's simultaneously boring and abrasive.
Planet-sized third set from the Toronto duo. Darren Loucaides 2012 Crystal Castles’ roots lie in bleepy goth-dance, and the lo-fi, video-game style of their early songs sounded very much of the bedroom in which they were recorded. It’d be wrong to say that the Canadian duo have completely left those origins behind with this, their third self-titled album – in fact, there’s much continuity across Crystal Castles’ output.
There are things one has come to expect from a Crystal Castles release: it’s going to be noisy, song titles will carry unpleasant connotations, lyrics - when intelligible - will have little in common with usual dancefloor-aimed electropop, and Alice Glass will scream many of them. The run-up to III has promised that Glass and miserablist producer Ethan Kath would deliver the tried and tested formula amped up to 11, but also their setting foot in new territory as well. The duo find sure footing sometimes, but not often enough.
Oppression, injustice, suffering—they all seem typical subject matter for a group whose sound has always been rooted in the paranoid apocalyptic. On their third full-length, Canadian duo Crystal Castles have drank deeper still from the well of discontent, resulting in 12 tracks that paint an even bleaker picture than their heretofore already grim worldview. “A lot of bad things have happened to people close to me since (II) and it's profoundly influenced my writing as I've realized there will never be justice for them," vocalist Alice Glass explained of the record prior to its release.