Crystal Castles - III

Crystal Castles’ great historical distinction, as I see it, is this: They’re the only group, as far as I can tell, that’s ascended to dance-music festival-headliner status by relying on distance, obfuscation, and mystery. (You could make a case for Aphex Twin and his peers there, but they were operating in a different time, a different dance-music universe.) Other guys may wear big light-up mouse masks or whatever, but that’s as much a crowd-pleasing trick as their dependable cycles of buildup and drop. Those guys generously offer as much abandon as possible. Crystal Castles keep us at arm’s length. Their live shows are intense and physical as fuck, but it’s a basement-punk intensity, not a dance-tent one. The first time I saw them, I could’ve sworn I watched Alice Glass bite a dude’s face and draw blood, though it was probably just their strobe-abuse stomping my brain into brown goo. They don’t solicit appreciation from crowds; they walk out, glower and thrash for 45 minutes, and bounce. On record, Glass’s voice is processed within an inch of its life, to the point where it sounds utterly inhuman. Ethan Kath plays around with the ingredients of popular dance music, but he smothers them behind clipped production and smothered synth-sound. (III) comes out after they moved gingerly toward melody with their second album, then used Robert Smith’s voice to turn their cover of “Not In Love” into their best song ever. The new album could’ve been a crossover breakout if they’d wanted one. But if anything, they’re more distant than ever this time around.

On one level, (III) is by far the most soothing thing they’ve ever made. Their beeps don’t bloop as ferociously as they once did, and Alice Glass’s utterly indecipherable words are mostly sung, not screamed. In the relatively direct environment of their live shows, a track like “Insulin” will probably kill, since its seismic bass-rumbles will sound something like Skrillex ones. But on record, those sounds are smushed and squished and buried; by design, you only get a hint of the havoc they could wreak. Last night, I played the album while I was putting my daughter to bed, and she only asked me to turn it off once. (If it had been the first album, she would’ve kept up a solid stream of complaints for its entire runtime.) But that’s not to say that (III) is a friendly album; it’s not. Instead, Crystal Castles are making the time-honored punk-to-goth transition, brewing up a creeped-out atmosphere where they one went for pure feral assault.

And it’s working. (III) has a great unsettled heaviness to it. You can’t tell unless you’re seriously parsing the lyric sheet, but Glass is singing about vast institutional global injustice with heart and empathy, even if she does occasionally lapse into poetry-class purple. But then, her exact words aren’t all that important, especially since you can never pick them out. What matters is the creeping panic audible in even the quietest moments. The tracks work as dance music, but they don’t pound; they wriggle their way into your lizard-brain and make you feel worried. And with the relative lack of velocity, there’s a bit more room for dread, though they still bring the catharsis when it’s needed. Parts of it sound like witch-house, or what you might imagine witch-house would sound like if you only read the reviews and never attempted to trudge through the boringness that that genre so often brought. It’s an album that works with a special cold-weather bleakness, with the vague thrumming despair that comes along when darkness first falls before your work day ends. If Mitt Romney had somehow won the election, I imagine I’d be returning to the album even more often than I am now.

It’s a bit instructive to look at Crystal Castles in the wake of Sleigh Bells. Crystal Castles came first, and you could almost accuse Sleigh Bells of biting. They are, after all, two male-female duos that play electronic pop music with scrappy hardcore intensity, pairing papercut-sharp producers with charismatic screamers. But Sleigh Bells’ chief concern has always been to turn their clangor into pop music; they have some catchy melodies, and they want you to hear them. The Crystal Castles approach is a more existential one. They never bother with choruses and barely with riffs; I usually don’t notice when one song fades into the next. What they bring is a feeling — specifically, a feeling of wanting to leave your own skin. I generally prefer the Sleigh Bells approach, but both groups are great at what they do, and both are necessary. With (III), Crystal Castles have continued to flesh out a body of work that creates its own cold, dark, insular little world. I don’t think it’s their best album — that’s probably still the second one — but it’s still a potent and disquieting thing.

(III) is out 11/12 on Casablanca/Fiction/Universal Republic. Stream it here.

Comments (29)
  1. this a pretty great and honest review.

  2. “They never bother with choruses and barely with riffs.” Huh? The very first song, “Plague,” has a huge chorus. Their songs absolutely have choruses and riffs, even if the lyrics are unintelligible and the riffs are played by synths instead of guitars.

    • totally – CC is still very much POP music, just with a twisted perspective / sound..

      loving ‘Violent Youth’ and ‘Transgender’

      PS: not sure if Crystal Castles makes for good bedtime music, unless you want your daughter to have (awesome) nightmares

  3. this album is magic. i can’t get the vocals of “wrath of god” out of my head and i have no idea what she’s even saying.

  4. So lame you guys closed the comments on the Quit Your Day Job: Nude Beach piece. Since you closed the comments on it, thought I’d say it here.

    • What happened in the comments section that made them feel like they should make commenting impossible?

      • Lol, you wouldn’t be referring to this, would you?

        Seriously though, is that what you were referring to?

        • Seriously, I am legitimately clueless about why people would not be allowed to comment on an article. I don’t read every item on this site, so once in a while I miss some monumental thing that occurs. I clicked your link and read some of the responses. The ones I read seemed like fairly reasonable discussions, but yeah, I saw that there were nearly 200 comments. If too many comments is the problem, Stereogum should count themselves lucky to have such a “problem” and let their readers react and generate repeated hits.

    • GUYS, the “Allow Comments” button was accidentally turned off. PLEASE BE OKAY WITH THIS MOMENTARY INDISCRETION, and please register all of these comments and more on the actual QYDJ post, which is open for business.

      • Hahaha damn!!! I was kind of suspecting that originally. MH, I was more formulating a conspiracy in my head about ‘Gum not wanting to subject bands to attacks on their socioeconomic status.


      • Eh…the idea of doing so was only compelling when it was forbidden.

  5. had to take a shower after my first listen, tbh.

  6. This is the best album they have launched so far.

  7. If you listen really close to Dick Cheneys heart, you’ll hear this.

    • I don’t know who designed this joke card but it has a lot of serious problems.

      First off, It’s a blue card, not an Artifact.

      Second, if it’s going to be 10/10 then it’s an Artifact Creature.

      Thirdly, Joseph and Jefferey need to get over themselves, there should only be one line for “Illustrated by”

      Perhaps “Legendary Basic” is part of the joke, but these two clowns have clearly never played Magic: The Gathering.

      Let me show you how a pro would handle this:

        • hey how was iceland airways? heard sigur ros was great!

          • It was fun! I mean going into it I really only wanted to see SHABAZZ PALACES, DIIV & SIGUR ROS, all caps’d because they were all amazing.

            Sigur Ros was in a relatively larger venue (all standing room) in Reykjavik but still incredibly intimate. Lots of extra space on the sides of the stage. Show was supposed to start at 7:00 but didn’t actually start til a little after 8:00. People started clapping and stood up at 6:40 and just sort of packed in and stood around, clapping and cheering to no avail for over an hour, wondering where they were. Mind you at 7:00pm they switched the music from quiet piano numbers to a very basic drone. This drone played out the entire hour. At 7:40 my sister and I ditched the stand up crowd and found ample space on the sides. Let’s just say for a good portion of the show I was laying down sprawled out on the ground soaking it up. Our joke for the evening was Sigur Ros = #CotRock

            Great setlist too.

            DIIV was way better live than I expected. They ramped up “Air Conditioning” and played everything I wanted to hear from “Oshin”.

            Oh but Shabazz. The Shabeezy. Poppa Palaceer. They played right after THEESatisfaction, which for the record, OMFG THEESatisfaction! Those girls are amazing/awesome/awesome. Not to mention they joined Shabazz on stage for a DOPE rendition of “Swerve…” and a few other songs, likely freestyles, but who knows. I was on the rail, something I don’t normally do given my height, in order to show Iceland how we Shabazz Acolytes do it. Good Lord it was amazing. I didn’t think I could love Black Up anymore, but I do now.

            Saw a bunch of other bands just on a whim too. Really casual, CRAZY weather at times. On Monday after the fest my sis & I met up with a fellow Stereogum commenter and, I shit you not, saw Bjork at a bar in Iceland. What was she up to?

            To Be Continued in Shut Up, Dude…

  8. Kind of defeats the purpose of a Comment Party when it’s replaced hours later with a Premature Evaluation. I was bringing shrimp cocktail (and the phonk) to the comment party but it was already off the front page.

  9. Am I the only person who prefers the original album version of “Not In Love”?

    • I think so.

      • I just don’t get the love for the Robert Smith version. For one the beat’s weaker; it sounds flatter and is pushed right to the back of the mix to make room for Smith’s far too prominent vocals which are pretty weak in my opinion (on the track, not generally), he sounds like he’s trying to imitate himself. It also loses the build and release that made CC’s version so great in the first place, through the whole track the beat builds up with the bass coming in then going to the chorus before just falling away again and building up more pressure, then BANG the massive synths finally hit at the end and it feels incredible. The new version shows its hand too soon and doesn’t have the same impact. Also I really loved the original quiet, robotic sounding vocals, which displayed a lot of emotion in their distance, as opposed to Smith’s, which sound too much like he’s trying to convey as much all caps EMOTION as is humanly possible, and in doing so lose all their real impact.

        Maybe I’m just weird.

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