I’ve never really been able to get that into Crystal Castles. Maybe it’s that I haven’t been impressed with the handful of bro-crowded shows I saw back around when the duo was just beginning to break out. Maybe it’s the tired veneer of sneering disdain that they affect. Whatever the case, I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to go, “Damn. That’s a really good Crystal Castles song.” Cool, yes. Sometimes. Fun, totally. But nothing I would ever consider good. Their latest album, however, has given me pause. I’ve seen many reviews that describe III as less abrasive than the previous works, and that’s certainly true. Alice’s voice is at its most tuneful here, and Kath’s productions explore pop elements further than ever, yet the result feels fresher, more matured. The dulled ravepunk roots of their debut have been mostly sheared away, as have the punishing crunches of II. This is a more thoughtful and harrowing depression, presented from the perspective of one more used to being hurt than hurting. That’s what makes all the screaming still so attention-grabbing: Alice is no longer angry, she’s scared. This theme of oppression hangs over III like a shroud, and it’s what engages the mind as well as the feet.
“Plague” opens, and its cheap and plodding club-synth sound is why I was initially skeptical of the album. Of the twelve tracks here, this feels like the worst to open with: a middle-of-the-road throwback from earlier times with more volume than soul. Things pick up with “Kerosene”, sadly not a Big Black cover but a skittering mass of pitched-vocals and foreboding synths that passes like a sweaty fever. “Wrath of God” starts off light and ethereal before crystalline beats hit and shatter into Alice’s fragmenting voice. Glass mentioned that a lot of inspiration had come from feeling that the world was “a dystopia where victims don’t get justice and corruption prevails.” “Sad Eyes” may sound like the perfect gothic banger, but it also appears to be about Muslim women and the social context of burkas.
“Affection” and “Pale Flesh” both burn slow. The former sways side to side like a gauzy opium dream, while the latter finds the perfect balance between shrieked angst and cooed sorrow, a sub-R&B beat laced with layers of refracted voices. The brief “Insulin” seems to skate closest to that OG thrash-trash vibe, though it broods more than it booms. It’s still the most industrial influenced track on the album, and a direction I’d like to see more of… Pop is all well and good, but give me that gristle any day. “Transgender” is glorious, Alice’s voice echoing like a Eurobeat-Siouxsie, bouncing off a hymnal chorus and a sweat2death disco pulse that’s still miserablist enough to not be obnoxious. “Violent Youth” isn’t so lucky, with a beat that sounds like an outtake of their “Trash The Rental” remix. Crystal Castles have been slowly shaking off the image of ‘music that plays while cheesy-looking models do blow in a rented limo (shot through fisheye lens)’; this one, however, will probably be on the next season of Gossip Girl. As for “Telepath”, if it could read my mind it would have stopped playing twenty seconds in.
The album recovers strongly, however. Nothing on III feels quite as achingly evil as the reversed buzzsawing synths of “Mercenary”, and Alice has never sounded more desperate. Her voice reaches across a yawning void to the listener, but her words are not ones of hope, but apathetic acceptance—perhaps the bleakest idea of all. Traditionally, Crystal Castles have always ended their albums on a quiet note, and “Child I Will Hurt You” is III‘s goodnight kiss. But though it may sound as light and sweet as the ice cream truck-chimes sprinkled throughout, it remains just as cold as what preceded it; it’s delicate, but sometimes dying is too.
I recently read a piece about a CC show where the reviewer mentioned that he didn’t enjoy the experience, but that it didn’t matter because that was the point: that the show exists to be uncomfortable, in all its ear-piercing assault and overly-enthusiastic crowd aggression. III is indeed uncomfortable, yet in this pit of glittering glass there are diamonds that cut just as deep, but leave beautiful scars. III may not always be the easiest pill to swallow, but it’s that inaccessibility (combined with some moments of touching loveliness) that makes the highs so rewarding. At the very least, I hope it gives DJs something else to play besides that fucking “Crimewave” remix.~
Published November 12, 2012.