Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Fiction

If bands could be reduced to single words, Crystal Castles would be ‘antagonistic;’ be it albums marked by a pattern of bursts of noise followed by pure electropop bliss, followed by hardcore or via stage antics that mothers of 13 year-old girls would recognize from their own trials and tribulations, Crystal Castles have turned acting out into an art form. If you were expecting their sophomore and second self-titled release to find the band maturing and acting like adults, you’ve been paying attention to the wrong group.

Instead, Crystal Castles follows a similar pattern to the band’s debut, also eponymously titled. Once again, the moments of beauty are pursued by moments of insanity or outright confrontation. The biggest difference is that this time around, the approach somehow seems less schizophrenic and more like natural changes in mood than chaotic shifts- Crystal Castles are still clearly testing their audience’s patience and boundaries, but it would appear to be for some higher purpose now.

For the masses, this probably becomes most apparent on lead single “Celestica,” which finds Alice Glass showcasing the more beautiful, lilting end of her vocal spectrum to a disarmingly somber backing that is occasionally interrupted by a high-pitched, metal-on-metal click. It’s as though the click is meant to serve as a reminder that at any point, Crystal Castles could lunge for your throat, no matter how beautiful the moment otherwise seems to be. At first the sound is obnoxious, rude even, but through repeated listens it becomes a safety blanket of sorts, a constant recall of the angry outbursts that sandwich “Celestica.”

The other major transformation comes in the diminished role of the 8-bit sounds that used to be Crystal Castles’ stock in trade, replaced on this album by what are sure to be galvanizing throwbacks to the heyday of rave culture, all trebly, warbling synths and epic, floating pads. This approach works for “Celestica” but is less successful on “Baptism,” which would be a clubber anthem from 1995 if it weren’t for Alice Glass’ crazed yelping and the periodic attempts at dialing things back. Not that subtlety has ever been a characteristic of Crystal Castles, but the bloated grandeur of “Baptism” is a bit much.

More interesting are the other elements of club culture that Crystal Castles ape, like the Timbaland-baiting beginning of “Empathy” or the Human League-by-way-of-the-Bug “Vietnam.” These moments reveal a chameleon aspect of Crystal Castles that was previously only hinted at; Ethan Kath appears to have become more confident in his production, freely plucking from styles and leaning less on the thrill of a hard bassline and blunt rhythms. The beats are still mostly minimalist, often just a thick kick and digitally clipped snare, but the furnishings surrounding them are more ornate now, with more surprising twists and turns, as in “Pap Smear” and its sudden descent into Autechre territory, with its glitched-out bridge breakbeat and frequent use of the shorter range of the delay knob.

Crystal Castles is an admittedly troubled work, full of missteps and frustrating changes in pace but to deny that this is simply part of the appeal of Crystal Castles themselves would be stupid. For consistency you could pick up any number of other electronic acts and be satisfied whereas buying a Crystal Castles album means not just dealing with the frustration but reveling in the excitement of a group that gives no quarter in their pursuit of the sounds in their heads. After all, creative antagonism yields far more interesting results than creative complacency.

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