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.