It's an age old question. There are those among us who feel like music should strive to be cheerful in nature: that it should be something to lift our spirits and should always provide a rosy disposition. Yet there are others who see beauty in the bleakness, who view despair as a delicacy. If you're one of these, Crystal Castles has an album for you.
They haven't taken long to leave their mark. After a promising debut in 2008, the Canadian electronic duo struck gold with their sophomore album II, one of the most distinctive electronic albums of the past several years. The release of III reinforces a striking fact about Crystal Castles that every album they have released are markedly different from one another.
Their debut was a visceral, aural experience rife with clinking and clunking of old video game machines, while their sophomore release drew much more heavily from IDM and refined their production; the electronics on that record were as sharp as a razor's edge. Main composer Ethan Kath has ensured that III shares little in common with those, so it's tough to make a direct comparison. But it doesn't take long to determine that it's much more atmospheric and even more dream like than its predecessor.
Crystal Castles have typically been a tough nut lyrically, with most of the vocals being glitched beyond comprehension. But would you have guessed Alice Glass as defender of the downtrodden? It seems to be what she's going for. In numerous interviews, she's spoken extensively on issues pertaining to women's rights and equality as well as flagging quality of life and limited rights of people around the world. These themes heavily inform III.
Lead single "Plague" shares fears of military and economic oppression on a third world scale, while noting we may be contributing to this descent with our own actions. The music is carefully building up in the background, bubbling and broiling until Alice at last reaches her grand realization: "I am the plague!" Her sense of rage and apprehension is palpable from the instant you hit play.
The theme is revisited several times later, including "Wrath of God," where Alice's muffled voice warns against the loss of independence and heritage. With its thumping, throbbing bassline and its organ driven, cathedral like lead melody, this is techno that feels fit for the Sistine Chapel.
The presence of muffled vocals is a recurring trend the band uses to augment the downbeat and dreary sound of the album. The technique shows up again on "Pale Flesh." The lead in consists of high pitched, glitchy electronic work that pushes the upper frequencies of your sound system. Alice's voice is so muffled, echoy and reverb coated that it sounds more like a flock of birds frantically fluttering in their cages than an actual human voice. This is one of the most suffocating, bleak and oppressive songs on the disc, but it does soften up a bit here and there so as to allow time for some quiet musing.
Some of their greatest opportunities to honestly affect a listener have come on their more melodic work, and they certainly haven't abandoned that. "Affection," for example, has the heaviest IDM influences and as such resembles the material on II most closely. Like "Celestica," it stakes its reputation on Alice's breathy vocals, and when her voice goes low it is truly one of the most stunning moments on the album.
"Kerosene" is also one of the album's more melodic pieces. Its rumbling, phantasmal bass synth glides into your eardrums like a storm front billowing out of your headphones. It rests on a variety of glitch/IDM lead melodies to augment the effect, along with Alice's crystal clear vocals.
One of the big strengths of III is its diversity "Sad Eyes" is one of the album's heaviest rave pieces. A pulsating bass beat gyrates underneath, creating a hot dance stunner that still manages to evoke a cold emotional spectrum. "Insulin," at just over a minute and a half, follows in the tradition of "Fainting Spells" and "Doe Deer" as one of the most difficult, dissonant, and experimental tracks in their catalog. A liberal static fuzz emotionally distances you from the track, while Glass's voice is garbled far past the point of recognition.
Elsewhere, "Violent Youth" proves Crystal Castles are capable of injecting warmth into a song. With its fun, bouncy beat, it's easily the most upbeat of III's offerings. The low, warbling bass synth from "Kerosene" also shows up in a couple of other tracks, including "Transgender" and "Telepath." "Telepath," the album's only instrumental, goes through a variety of phases. It's very glitchy sounding at first, then becomes more spacey and atmospheric.
Despite its violent title, album closer "Child I Will Hurt You" is quite the opposite of what you might think. Like their previous album closers "I Am Made of Chalk" and "Tell Me What To Swallow" it is much more downbeat and low key, while sounding nothing like either of those songs. "Child I Will Hurt You" presents a mellow, tranquil and peaceful vibe for the first and only time on the album, while the twinkling electronica provides a familiar dreamlike element.
Because each Crystal Castles album is so vastly different from one another, it all comes down to the listeners' own musical preference as to where III will rate in their catalog. This is an album dominated by rave elements, atmospherics, and presents generally cold and bleak but beautiful sonic dimensions. Personally, II is their most consistent album and therefore is a slightly stronger overall. But there are more than a few guy/girl electronic duos around, and none of them are nearly as distinctive as Crystal Castles. They have their own style, and the variety of ways in which they express it on III is truly remarkable. Tragedy doesn't have to be your true love to appreciate that.