Of those bands that have been referred to, whether casually or specifically, as being a “dance punk” band, it is without a doubt that Crystal Castles outdid them all in both aspects, though it was the punk aspect of their act that got them the most attention two years ago, which didn’t always benefit their music. Most people knew the band as the one that seemed to always find trouble whether it was in search of it or not. They were the band who has been accused of lifting other people’s music or visual art for their own purposes without permission, and footage of Alice Glass’s many onstage fracases are myriad on YouTube. Their most well-known piece of original music at that time was “Alice Practice,” which is exactly that, only they didn’t know it was being recorded. They were and still are mentioned quite a bit on Hipster Runoff, the value of which I can’t really assess but I suppose is worth mentioning. So tempting was the mythology that it almost completely eclipsed what was a strong debut with great ideas if not the most airtight cohesion.
So the matter set before them (at least from my interpretation) was for them to manage a way to channel that “attitude” back into the music in order to make a compelling follow-up. It didn’t have to cause a complete reversal of fortune or anything, just something to refocus the attention of fans, voyeurs and haters alike back onto the music, which is only logical as that is what they do most of the time. Of course it did do that and in the process caused a reversal of fortune to boot. They went into the studio as shit-starters and came out as artists who just so happen to start shit. And this is not simply limited to the fact that they made an actual album as opposed to their first one, which culled together a series of disparate recordings into one package.
In assembling this album, Crystal Castles jettisoned very little of what made their sound stand out previously if anything at all. They certainly retained their collective ear for beats both melodic and aggressive, balanced with their gothic sense of atmosphere, and have not let one iota of their noise-influenced intensity thaw out. What they did was make improvements on them. The aggression that was so confounding on “Alice Practice” was sharpened considerable on “Doe Deer,” “Intimate” and “Year of Silence.” Their mood/atmospheric tendencies in tracks like “Magic Spells” and “Crimewave” were used to greater emotional effect in the far more subtly unnerving “Celestica” and the barbiturate haze of “Violent Dreams.” Perhaps most significantly was their freeing up of their innate abilities to craft great hooks. “Baptism,” “Suffocation,” “Vietnam” and “Pap Smear” all contain beats that moves one’s muscles and melodies that stick in one’s memory, while not at all succumbing to the pitfalls of the club scenes from which they derived some of their sounds.
Crystal Castles does not, by any means, play music that would be considered friendly. Their type of dance music is not one that promotes communal hedonism like rave or house culture did or does, but rather a deterioration of individual self-control, a willing possession of sorts with no particular concern as to whether good or bad feelings come out of it so long as it’s feeling all the same. It’s basically punk, as completely visceral and cathartic as anything produced by Minor Threat, The Jesus Lizard or Big Black. It’s what Ministry’s With Sympathy probably could have sounded like if Jourgensen had his way-assuming that label pressure was indeed the main factor behind that regrettable album. In any case it’s certainly a minor comfort at the very least that nihilism remains an attractive artistic concept if not a full-on social one, and can be reconciled pretty handily with attractive sounds.