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.