Crystal Castles make songs that are so beat and synth intensive, it’s tempting to think that the duo just sits in front of a computer and pastes a bunch of samples together underneath Alice Glass’ vocals. That dark wave sound has served them well through two full lengths, as they’ve also gone from a small and obscure act to powerful stars of the electronica world in a very short time period. Their success has been a bit perplexing too, because of how experimental and weird their music can get. If you listen to a lot of what’s popular in EDM these days, whether you include or exclude dubstep, most everything is built on similar principles and structures that keep ears pleased and bodies moving. Crystal Castles defy that logic by embracing the abrasive and muddled. They turn left when expectation tells them to go right. The critical acclaim that’s been heaped on their last two efforts Crystal Castles and (II) is understandable because they stand out in innovative and exciting ways. When Glass breaks out her high pitched scream and is subsequently drowned in a digital bath, it’s noticeably uncomfortable but great once you get used to it. In today’s hyperactive music scene, most don’t invest the time to adapt their tastes, so that so many have done so for this group is in part a testament to their excellence. Now we’re blessed with their third full length, appropriately titled (III), and it continues to try and take this odd musical conversation to a new level.
First of all, Glass and her counterpart Ethan Kath claim to have traded in their computers and gear while in the studio so as to step out of their comfort zones and into fresh concepts. Such a gamble winds up doing very little for them, because from note one of opening track and first single “Plague” you can’t confuse these songs for anything but Crystal Castles. Part of it is Glass’ distinct vocal approach, her yelps so covered in distortion that you can rarely understand a word. The other part is Kath’s staccato synth work, which is equally distinctive. So with or without their old gear and computer assistance they still find those same sonic paths, though there’s a certain focus that comes into play on this new record that we’ve never experienced with them before. Like a live band that’s just starting out, the more times they do something, the better they get at it. Three albums in, they know the drill and are now efforting to perfect it. The problem with that is their innovative tricks are no longer so innovative, and popular music has caught up with those sensibilities. In other words, Crystal Castles run the risk of becoming irrelevant if they don’t continue to adapt. For now, (III) streamlines what they’ve already got going, and it makes for their most easily digestible record to date.
Of course just because the album goes down smooth doesn’t mean it’s some cheery dance record you can get euphoric with in a club somewhere. On the contrary, beneath the glossy exterior of these songs are deeply troubled and disturbing lyrics about genocide, disease, corruption and oppression. It’s near impossible to understand most of what’s being said thanks to filters and distortion, but technically speaking it’s there. It begs the question – if Alice Glass makes some important statements about our world but nobody can make out what she’s saying, do we really care? From a different perspective, if we could make out every word, would it change how we listen to this record? Well, when the words can’t convey a clear message, the music itself does. “Wrath of God” comes across as the title suggests, as does “Violent Youth” and “Child I Will Hurt You.” Songs like “Pale Flesh” and “Mercenary” are witchy and wrought with a feeling of dread. Even the songs that are easiest on the ears like “Kerosene” and “Affection” carry with them a sense of despondency that’s not exactly charming. So though (III) isn’t as instrumentally experimental and challenging as the band’s previous two efforts, their approach and subject matter gets darker and more alien to offset it. The trade-off turns out to be not worth as much as you might expect, suggesting that maybe now is the time Crystal Castles need to really sit down and figure out how they’re going to proceed from here. The money is reasonably good and their popularity continues to rise, so maybe that will blind them from the truth that their novelty is starting to wear thin. The quality of what they’re offering can’t be considered poor by any stretch of the imagination, but you can see the sword of Damocles hanging above their heads and the winds shifting to some crazier and more fun EDM acts. Perhaps that’s the real reason why this record is so foreboding.