Toronto-based duo Crystal Castles, i.e. singer Alice Glass and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath, came up with an exhilarating mix of psychotic vocals and digital beats to concoct the futuristic rave music of Crystal Castles (PIAS, 2008), that basically collected the singles of the previous four years. The music exploits two simple ideas: 1. the noise of vintage videogame consoles of the 1970s and 2. the jovial beat of synth-pop of the 1980s. Most songs are built around either or both of these excuses. Hence the ping-pong beat for the anthemic melody of Untrust Us, the pounding beat and frenzied cacophony for the desperate shouting of XXZXCUZX Me, the booming elastic drum-machine and videogame-like synth lines for the dejected litany of Crimewave, the syncopated ballet and shrill tonefest for the wordless Air War (2007), the abrasive and quasi-comic synths for the childish rant of Courtship Dating, etc. Here the digital hardcore of Alice Practice (their debut single of 2006) is a reminder of how they used to push the envelope. When they stray away from their standard, the results are disappointing, whether the harmless ambient intermezzo Magic Spells or the melodic mid-tempo ballad Vanished. And, with the exception of the exuberant Black Panther, the last six or so tracks are disposable variations on the old singles. The music of this album is highly derivative of the 1980s but just edgy enough to target a new generation.
Crystal Castles II (Fiction, 2010) opens with a far more austere declaration of intents: Fainting Spells, a symphonic nightmare that revolves around expressionist screams. The grotesquely abrasive and aggressive Doe Deer ranks as their most punkish moment yet. Birds is a darkly incoherent slab of abrasive noise kept under control, and I Am Made Of Chalk explores the border between ambient music and musique concrete. For pure dance acrobatics, the winner is the instrumental Intimate.
However, it's the easy-listening melody and the steady disco beat of Celestica and Pap Smear that clarify the new course: dispensing with videogame cacophony, the focus has shifted towards a simpler strategy to conquer the dancefloor. Hence, a number of trivial and sometimes truly tedious variations on the midtempo ballad format, from the trancey Empathy to the atmospheric Vietnam. Even Baptism, theoretically their wild rave novelty, is, in reality, relatively uneventful house music. It is telling that the highlight of the second half of the album is a cover of Platinum Blonde's rousing Not In Love. Whichever album one prefers (the harsh and mostly instrumental one or the soft and mostly sung one), the role of the vocalist has greatly diminished.
III (Fiction, 2012), proudly recorded without the use of computers, suffers from a sound that is nonetheless heavily processed while not being hostile enough, with the singer's soft melodic moans buried layers and layers of hallucinogenic sound effects. Judged as a disco-pop effort, the album's highlights are Plague, a languid anthem of house music with stuttering synths and monk-like choir; Wrath of Godd, an effective combination of thumping drum-machine and apocalyptic keyboard lines; and the Abba-esque Sad Eyes with its contrast of lashing electronics and sensual vocals that symbolizes the contrast of teenage angst and lust. The difference between Crystal Castles and the synth-pop duos of the Eurythmics era is that here the vocals drift aimlessly into the electronic "castle" instead of providing its punch line, its very reason of existence. There is comedy in the gothic, tribal Siouxsie Sioux-esque dance Transgender grafted onto a parodistic Aqua-esque beat (a beat that segues naturally into the hilarious while nostalgic polka Violet Youth). And there is drama in the edgy melodrama Pale Fles, where she finally screams instead of moaning, and fear in the expressionist ballet Insulin. Neither extreme prevails, and so the music, neither ludic nor existential, inhabits a limbo between the galvanizing dancefloor and the melancholic bedroom.