It’s surprising that we’re still talking about Crystal Castles. The music press was palpably poised when their last album hit, ready to tear apart their giant, gig-cancelling, fan-punching egos, and dismiss them as another fad from the new rave wave that dragged along a generation of impressionable, dumb teenagers (myself, regrettably, included). But the record was just too strong, its dreamy pop interspersed with rude awakenings that were as catchy as they were enraged.
However, third albums pose a problem for bands that rely on a formula, albeit a spectacularly successful one. The standard progression of ‘do it right, do it better, do it different’ holds some truth, and it was hard to see a pair with such a honed, unique sound being adaptable. The news that Ethan Kath, the duo’s main songwriter, would be producing the record on his own for the first time didn’t sound convincingly conducive to change.
As might have been expected, the record retains the distinctive lo-fi synths and club beats. It is identifiably a Crystal Castles album from the moment the distorted moans and weighty kicks of ‘Plague’ enter your ears. But the track is also a perfect example of the way that in attempting to modify their sound, the duo have robbed it of almost everything that made it exciting. The irresistible melodies are largely gone in favour of the throb of side-chained compression (for more, see Eric Prydz’s ‘Call on Me’). Glass’s vocals are uninspired, and too masked in reverb to really assert themselves. It positively plods for nigh-on five minutes.
“I didn’t think I could lose faith in humanity any more than I already had,” Glass said in a recent interview about the album with NME, and this sheds a bit of light on the record’s lack of cohesion. Songs like ‘Wrath of God’, with its overly twee intro subsumed by paranoia, feels constructed to convey disillusionment by being unsettling, lacking the deftness and immaculate timing of, say, II‘s ‘Celestica’. They have given up hope, and with it any hint of a catchy hook.
There are a few redeeming tracks, but they are exceptional. ‘Violent Youth’ recaptures something of the naturally edgy euphoria of the previous release, and its alluring outro adds some variation to the otherwise insipid track structures. The angelic closer ‘Child I Will Hurt You’ is a complete departure from the rest of the record. Its faintly discordant arpeggios weave together with Glass’s airy vocals to create a tone more inviting than anything else they’re written, and it disappears in a wisp. But when she coos “have you been entertained?” it draws attention to the discrepancy between this and the previous tracks, what the album is and what it could have been.
Crystal Castles have never been particularly subtle, but this is exposed here in their attempt to cultivate a more intricate atmosphere than the oscillation between the angry and the ethereal on I and II. The sound is close enough to their previous work to ask to be compared with it, yet they’ve meddled with the equation sufficiently that it no longer works, depriving it of the blind wildness and pop immediacy that made their simple songs so compelling.