Despite the quality of their records, Crystal Castles are still underdogs to an extent. Their periodically erratic behavior has left them polarizing figures seemingly in a state of perpetual backlash. That said, the consistency of their music has helped sway even some of their earliest critics. Their third offering, (III), may not bring any new converts as the duo continues to refine the Crystal Castles sound without really changing up their game all that much. On the other hand, for those of us who have been able to overlook their less desirable antics and have enjoyed watching them develop, this record holds up well to the high standard they have set for themselves musically. (III) doesn’t warrant the kind of shock that the vivid transformation they made on their second record caused, as it finds Crystal Castles forging new ways to make their existing palette rewarding.
The duo rarely betrays its typical arsenal including processed vocal samples, bouncing beats and foreboding synths. If (III) doesn’t represent any kind of big step forward, it does show the duo continuing the progression started on their second self-titled album and making the right kinds of modest adjustments. The first track “Plague” manages to combine beauty and bombast to dizzying effect, pointing the way to be the balance struck on most of the record. Where much of (III) features Crystal Castles at their most ominous, somehow that darkness still provides some of their most gorgeous work. In the past, there were the infectious Crystal Castles songs, the chaotic noise workouts and the sublime, pretty songs. The duo spends the majority of this album bringing these disparate sides of the band together, and the melding of these styles proves to be a rewarding one. “Transgender”‘s wobbly synths are chilling; menacing, yet melodic. The result is a record that is easily their most cohesive, if not necessarily their best.
Much has been made by singer Alice Glass about the political nature of the lyrics on (III). Apparently disgusted with the human behavior and injustices she’s seen on tour with Crystal Castles, much of the imagery on display is bleak to say the least. Humanity is not cast in the best light on much of the record and although her heart is in the right place most of the time, it’s sometimes hard to get past the feeling that some lines were pulled straight from her teenage journal. The question is not so much whether or not the oppression Glass is perceiving is real; unfortunately, it’s hard to deny, but lines like “Keep them locked away/Reduce them to strays,” and “Migrate them through pesticide” are just too simplistic and vague to really cohere for the listener.
Perhaps this issue isn’t really an issue at all. After all, Glass’ rage never really undermines the record; throughout most of it, it’s pretty difficult to even make out what she’s saying. And in spite of the vitriol pouring out of her, this record has as many moments of pure beauty as it does noise. Most of what Glass mourns on the gorgeous “Child I Will Hurt You” is barely perceivable; leaving the listener with a beautiful melancholy lullaby.
It would have been very easy for Crystal Castles to wind up as a flash in the pan. Their debut may have been awesome but it was hard to imagine its 8-bit novelty being quite as satisfying on a second or third offering. Much credit is due to the band for their ability to keep their aesthetic intact while giving their electro pop a bit of a makeover. (III) may not be as bold a progression as that between their debut and sophomore albums, but it still represents another step in what’s proving to be a very satisfying direction.
Stream: Crystal Castles – “Plague”