For Fans Of
When the sugar-coated sheen of commercial electronica gets too much, it’s refreshing hearing an outfit like Crystal Castles, who, up until now, have maintained a dark and experimental aesthetic, too bleak and challenging for most teenyboppers. They’ve put out two solid records – 2008’s self-titled debut and 2010’s II – but in 2012, III shows signs of the duo’s creative pool starting to dry up and fade away.
III is a creative leap backwards for Crystal Castles in a lot of respects. While the Canadian duo’s first two albums lived up to the title of ‘experimental’, this time around they’ve settled on a formula that goes a bit like this: take moody electronica suited to raves and clubs everywhere, mix with Alice Glass’ incongruous-yet-frequently-melodic vocals and pad out with lots of flashy embellishments and neat running times. It’s as though Crystal Castles have diluted the abrasive elements of their music to make it more attractive to the mainstream (see the blatant pleas for commercial FM acceptance on ‘Wrath of God’ and ‘Plague’). The problem with this approach is it alienates a large cross-section of fans who were drawn to the duo’s off-the-wall crazy moments to begin with, like the scuzzy punk rock of ‘Doe Deer’ from II or Gameboy-on-acid freakout of ‘Xxzxcuzx Me’ from their 2008 debut.
If Crystal Castles were unpredictable and challenging before, they’ve certainly toned it down this time. Too much of III sounds the same and bleeds from one forgettable electro banger into the next. ‘Affection’ rides a skittering hip-hop beat around aimlessly over Glass’ ghostly vocals, before transitioning into the glitchy ‘Pale Flesh’ and painfully mediocre ‘Transgender’ later on (admittedly, ‘Sad Eyes’ does pick up the pace a little, injecting some much needed bang into proceedings). But, unfortunately, for the most part III is simply underwhelming; interesting hooks and stylistic shifts are fleeting, overrun by plenty of similar, mid-tempo dancefloor fodder.
Ethan Kath and Alice Glass have never placed a great deal of importance on vocals. If you’ve seen them live then you’ll know Alice could pretty much be screaming anything into the microphone and people would still dance – and the same thing applies on their records. On III, her vocals are chopped, changed, manipulated, and stretched beyond recognition, frequently buried deep within each track. The issue with this approach is that rather than drawing listeners in, her delicate crooning (she doesn’t scream all that much anymore) is more decorative filler than arresting songwriting ingredient. To be totally blunt, Alice just doesn’t have a strong enough voice to saviour a lot of what’s going on here.
But tired dynamics and irritating chipmunk vocals aside, there are moments that save III from being a total train wreck. ‘Insulin’ is a grating industrial stomper with attitude. It’s short, sharp and straight to the point. Meanwhile, ‘Violent Youth’ could be a B-side from their debut (a good thing, of course), while ‘Mercenary’ is dark and menacing enough to scare off any Top-40 teenybopper.
III sounds rigid and calculated in comparison to past efforts, giving it a generally tired and predictable aftertaste. It’s hard to tag Crystal Castles as ‘experimental’ anymore when they’re content with churning out run-of-the-mill dance floor ditties like everyone else. A disappointing effort.
3. Wrath of God
5. Pale Flesh
6. Sad Eyes
9. Violent Youth
12. Child I Will Hurt You