Crystal Castles are one of the more recent––and more popular––bands to dispel the notion that abrasiveness and escapism are mutually exclusive. More underground outfits discovered this long ago and never looked back. Just this year, albums from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Ital, Swans, and Andy Stott have demonstrated that exploring dark places need not be a cold, lifeless exercise. Crystal Castles' initial releases seemed to share this assumption. Their first full length was a concentrated explosion of biting synths and shrill vocal distortions, which suggested that their creators operated with a combination of apathy and masochism. Yet, albums (I) and (II) also had numerous moments of sleek catchiness (“Untrust Us,” “Year of Silence”) and some legitimately chart-friendly numbers (“Crimewave,” “Not In Love”). Further, their 2010 release often abandoned Glass's shrieking vocals in favor of a sound that bordered on dream-pop.
Ethan Kath and Alice Glass seem intent on experimenting with their sound, but to call their more recent work “experimental” would be a disservice to the artists who have absolutely no interest in being popularly recognized. Crystal Castles have made the oddly typical journey from purveyors of sinister, conscious-altering electro to composers of shrouded, depressed dance tunes. Some will undoubtedly appreciate the more polished production; however, with less of the numbing quality that marked their early work, (III) dabbles in dark places with often predictable results.
The Brooklyn duo, formed in 2004, quickly established their niche with a string of limited EPs and a notoriously ferocious live concert. Their mysterious insularity (and vicious synth lines) proved marketable, as hoards of hooded youths turned out for shows filled with flailing and pining after Alice Glass. Crystal Castes have tried to remain true to their aura of disaffection. Glass recently noted that she “didn't think she could lose faith in humanity and more than [she] already had.” However, “after witnessing some things, it feels like the world is a dystopia where victims don't get justice and corruption prevails.” She mentions that this sentiment played a role in the shaping of (III). The album is indeed their angriest release yet. Glass often opts to let her vocals form coherent constructions rather than just being splattered words and images. One gets the sense that she has more of a story to tell; however, the story doesn't comfort so much as it makes you feel like Bruce Wayne after he falls into the well. On “Plague” she sings “virgin cells to penetrate/ too premature to permeate/ they can't elucidate/ never thought I was the enemy/ I am the plague.” It's an intense portrayal of how Glass views the subjugation of women. This is the Crystal Castle's wheelhouse, so to speak, and it calls for production that makes the listener engaged, even frightened. (III) has some very enjoyable moments, but it is not the tour de force that one would hope.
Kath has said that he threw out all of his old equipment for the recording of (III), seeking to build a completely new sound. His productions have a deeper quality to them – more full bodied bass, a wider range of timbres, more searching melodies – but they are unmistakably Crystal Castles' songs. Still, some of the sleeker dance numbers are indebted to recent production trends (see Purity Ring, Grimes, etc.) “Affection” sports snapping trap drums and washed out synths that swirl around the dreamy vocals. Similarly, “Transgender” and “Violent Youth” have eery undertones but they are mostly clean cut dance numbers cloaked with reverb. In the vein of their more traditional, glitchy anthems, “Kerosene” and “Pale Flesh” pummel along purposefully, as various layers of moody noise work their way in and out of the arrangement. These tunes are fun and immediately re-playable, but they are also a slightly less catchy version of what everyone expects from Crystal Castles. “Wrath of God” is probably the most interesting production on the record. It begs to be blasted at painful levels and it succeeds at evoking the kind of emotion that (III) seems intent on conveying.
Some might argue that (III) is a more mature, accomplished record from a band that has moved on from its hostile roots. First, to make that claim one would have to ignore much of (III)'s unevenness and find some continuity in a slightly scattered record. But more importantly, that argument seems to betray what the foundation of this album is meant to be. Kath and Glass are angrier and more disillusioned than ever but yet (III) comes out as a more balanced work with cleaner production? It feels more like Glass is screaming in an effort to make her point but her words are muddled by a somewhat stunted production aesthetic. The mood that the album creates is often quite dark (save for the strangely uplifting album closer) but it is the kind of fleeting blackness one experiences in a dark, crowded room, rather than the oppressive emptiness that the duo seems to want to inhabit. (III) is worthwhile in that it is an interesting take on dance music, yet that doesn't seem quite enough for a group predicated on delivering an onslaught of emotional energy.
The cover of (III) depicts a Yemeni woman holding her son. The image is rife with a sense of oppression. The child has just been exposed to tear gas and the woman is heavily clad in a burka. There are moments of the album that give form to this image. Glass' violent moans on “Wrath of God.” The claustrophobic synths on “Insulin.” But the photo's visceral intensity is largely buried deep within the record. Given that Crystal Castles are a mainstay at festivals around the world, it might be unrealistic to ask for a more sincere representation of their album cover. Still, I think that that is the album they are hoping to make. They would do well to remember that they became popular because of their abrasiveness, and not in spite of it. [B]
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