Crystal Castles - (III)
A friend: “I dunno...It’s like they’re trying too hard to let you know that they really don’t give a shit.” He’s nearly right. The truth is, of course, that Crystal Castles are way too smart to go grasping after such an empty, devalued gesture. Not for them the easy thrills of dreary nihilism. Sure, they come in any colour you like as long as it’s (mostly) black, packaged minimally enough to build enigma and a hint of menace. Ethan Kath still galvanizes his shrill arrangements with a ringing layer of doom-y counterpoint below the jackhammer beats and stabs of synth. Alice Glass squares up to the world, as fearless as a bar room drunk.
But Crystal Castles are way above couldn’t-give-a-fuck. They care a lot. Dirty work for sure, but it’s less a case of ‘someone has to’ and more ‘who else can?’ But whether they have two hoots for what you think is something else entirely. For once, an act who claim not to care whether people get it or not, convince in their bloody single-mindedness. All that dismissive bravado, the gobbing on the stage, the fisticuffs with the front rows, the subsequent broken limbs. It’s not that they don’t give a shit. They just don’t give a shit whether we give a shit.
In how they manage their many contradictions, they continue to fascinate. An alt.electro act of uncommon daring, they’re starting to reveal levels, layers, depth. (III) is chaotic but deliberate, uproarious but focused. To call it Crystal Castles’ ‘time to get serious’ record insults them but it sees an arguably narrow aesthetic expanded, and adds enterprise and adventure to their methodology. In line with their own ambivalence towards their status, this, their third album (clue's in the title), parades a savage self-assurance, far removed from crowd-pleasing. It seems to emanate from another galaxy, a vortex of bleeps, shrieks and beats that started its journey to the inner core of your synapses light years ago.
It will probably do little to sway doubters. (III) rounds off only some of the burrs and sharp edges at the absolute core of the duo’s grand (guignol) design. Long-termers, hooked on the sweet pain, the near physical assault of their most extreme moments, will still find succour here. Crystal Castles are ever canny and while this new collection maintains their trademark attack, the lyric sheet confirms a darkening, deepening manifesto. Be clear: this is no slack, fist-shaking squall from the blank generation.
Glass’s pre-release assertion that the state of the world, in particular the media's increasing sexualisation of children, has left her an inch away from stepping into vigilante mode, is compelling but rings only half true. Has she really given up all hope, her only retort to fight fire with fire? (III) suggests otherwise. It burns with a desperate, enevloping compassion. Not as brutal or brittle as before, these crystal visions are unclouded and fleshed out. Do judge this one by its cover – Samuel Aranda’s photo of a Yemeni woman protecting her son who’s been blinded by tear gas during an anti-government demonstration is distressing but prescient.
Those of an age will remember the music weekly centre-spread ads run to trail The Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, two pages of nothing but the album lyrics - Richey Edwards’ skeletal poetry, stark and unsettling on the page, devoid of the comforting structure of grammatical norms. Minus preposition, clause, exposition, his words were staccato, unadorned, unbearably naked. (III) is similarly disconcerting. From devastating opener ‘Plague’ (“I need you pure I need you clean, Don't try to enlighten me / Power to misconstrue, what have they done to you ?”) to ‘Wrath of God' with its call to “Sterilize samaritans, Contravene loyalties / Migrate them through the pesticide”, Crystal Castles detail the horrors of oppression with unwavering focus.
Recorded in Berlin and Warsaw (what did you expect – the Bahamas?), (III) calls time on the methods of its predecessors and replaces analogue with digital. It sounds monstrous and beautiful. Some of the backing tracks here will shame bank-rolled DJs and supposedly hot US producers. Alongside, a growing song craft emerges. Certainly, this is the duo’s most convincing set of tunes. Enter to the snarly warp of ‘Plague’, exit (retreat?) adrift the sci-fi lullaby of ‘Child I Will Hurt You’. Ensure maximum impact by listening properly – in order and in its entirety, for (III) is immaculately and sensitively programmed. At its best, as on the bounding ‘Transgender’, where a repeated figure apes Goblin’s Suspiria theme and they manage both grand pop and dark mischief, Crystal Castles achieve new and notable highs.
Glass remains, on record at least, an almost ineffable presence. Minus a crowd to taunt and smack around, she populates the dark corners of the tunes. You almost have to go and find her at times. (Alice? Alice! Where the fuck is Alice?) She’s either trapped in layers of vocoder, hushed, barely there, or, as on ‘Kerosene’, where her backing vocals are played backwards and sped up and the ‘straight’ vocal track ignores the standard rules of stress and emphasis, spinning you blindfold.
Committing to Crystal Castles is like diving into an empty pool: nothing is guaranteed, least of all personal safety. Navigating that thin line between pleasure and pain, they manage to be both unlovely, repellent, forbidding, and yet capable of passages of heart-stopping beauty. Ex-TMF staffer Matt James once described them as “a fallen angel running across a motorway.” That’s perfect: more than ever they marry the celestial and the prosaic. (III) is bold, dramatic, transcendent and a little bit fucked up. It’s a startling document of a group in extremis. Love them, therefore, like they love themselves. From a distance.