Crystal Castles – (III)
Conflict forms the foundation of Crystal Castles’ music: conflict between production and songwriting, between noise and melody, or simply how their music seems fit to soundtrack a riot. At their best, the Canadian duo convey their chaos in an exhilarating way; at their worst, their songs feel like unfinished bits of studio business. That’s what’s made their first two records sporadically brilliant but frustratingly uneven, since Alice Glass and Ethan Kath don’t always seem to live up to their considerable potential. Luckily, on their third eponymous album (listed simply as (III)), Crystal Castles deliver their most focused and streamlined set yet. It’s also their most self-consciously serious.
Whereas most of their previous work fell neatly into the “abrasive” or “pretty” camps, (III) ‘s twelve tracks largely finds a happy medium between the two, where every poppy melody is undercut by a claustrophobic sense of dread. Of course, this is only fitting for an album that deals with themes of revolution and oppression, one whose cover features a famous portrait of a mother consoling her son during the Arab Spring protests. “Plague” and “Wrath Of God,” two of the record’s highlights, suggest looking down at a war-torn street, with Glass’ shouting buried in the din so it sounds like overhearing an argument from next door. And that might actually be the biggest shift from the Crystal Castles’ earlier records, too. While, on past albums, there have always been a couple of pop songs, like “Celestica,” that spotlight Glass’ alternately fierce and fragile vocals, here her yells and moans are always cloaked in cacophony, which adds intensity to the first half of the record but also sucks some of the momentum out of the atmospheric second half, since those songs generally lack a human ballast. Still, none of it sounds drab thanks to Kath, and, if anything, (III) ends up as a showcase for his developing talents as a producer. He’s always had a unique flair for making the familiar seem fresh, chopping up Atari bleeps and pitch-shifted vocals into jagged melodies and propulsive rhythms. He plays the same trick here—everything still sounds made up of ’90s club beats and ’80s sci-fi soundtracks, especially on “Sad Eyes”—but it’s with a greater understanding of dynamics, so the album as a whole feels more cohesive than their past work, even if it lacks some of the titillating extremes of (II). But if it doesn’t always reach the startling highs of their past work, (III) is unquestionably their most consistent record, and it hints that, as Crystal Castles begin to understand what works, their best music might still be on its way.