Canadian duo Ethan Kath and Alice Glass, collectively known as Crystal Castles, have remained at the forefront of experimental electronic dance music over the last five years despite, or perhaps because of their mystical reclusiveness.
Their eponymous debut release mixed two-dimensional synthesizer sounds with contemporary dance beats and noise rock elements to create forceful yet strikingly beautiful songs for the Nintendo generation. While at the time the band was lumped in with the short-lived New Rave scene, that album has outlasted pretty much everything else from that era.
The follow-up, Crystal Castles (II), magnified the sounds on the first album and explored new territory in terms of song-writing. Glass’s vocal hooks were more delicate and tinged with a gothic ‘miserablism’, while Kath’s dynamic new synth lines comprised darker layers and textures than before.
Over the summer the band dropped ‘Plague’ via SoundCloud, which would become the first single from their third eponymous release, Crystal Castles (III). Gratifyingly, it represents another logical yet decisive progression for Kath and Glass, with thick, overbearing synth chords stomping over vocals which have an eerie, almost childlike quality. Over the course of III ‘Plague’ becomes representative of its sinister overarching themes: inequality, exploitation and subjugation of the vulnerable, fear and intolerance of different cultures.
The opening trio of ‘Plague’, ‘Kerosene’ and ‘Wrath of God’ sets the tone of the record, Glass’s desperate vocal shrieks and Kath’s pounding synths on the latter ushering in the shadowy gloom that is to come.
Glass continues to take on the big issues. On ‘Sad Eyes’, she deals with the concealed emotional impacts for Muslim women who wear burkas, while numerous tracks on III refer to the purity of youth and its manipulation by adult institutions: “Infants in infantry; Rewrite their history; Uproot their colony; You’re ripe for harvesting”. The dark lyrical overtones are paired with some of Kath’s most overpowering instrumental lines, creating a quite powerful sense of bleakness and morbidity. The songs here are much more like vast musical structures than the glittery tunes of their past work – it makes a song like ‘Air War’ from their debut sound laughably flimsy in comparison.
Each individual track has greater clarity on III perhaps because they aren’t quite as ‘busy’ as their previous work, which sought to fill every gap with some kind of effect. Here, the tracks have more space to stand alone. It’s not always effective though. ‘Insulin’ is cut up and distorted to the point that it’s difficult to make out any semblance of rhythm while the afore-mentioned ‘Sad Eyes’, the most arresting, instantly gripping track on the album, is full of bluster but is held up by a weak synth hook which eventually runs out of steam.
As the album reaches its height, these imperfections are shaken off. ‘Violent Youth’ makes use of some distorted looped vocals before sharp reversed synth samples fizz around ominous chords on ‘Mercenary’. ‘Child I Will Hurt You’, the album’s closing track, is one of Crystal Castles’ most fragile and therefore haunting pieces. Kath’s twinkly instrumental effect combined with Glass’s hushed vocal give the disturbing effect of a child’s mobile, its menace arising from the fusion of something recognisably innocent with something far more sinister.
Many with a passing interest in Crystal Castles would probably have summarised their music as more about style than substance, cool on the surface but with little depth beneath. Here however, Crystal Castles dig much deeper into the niche they’ve created, undoubtedly crafting their most profound artistic statement to date.
Jack is listening to The Antlers – ‘Undersea’