Colorado songwriter mixes obscenity and emotional heft with huge pop melodies
An astonishing debut from the Canadian digital noiseniks
Their debut seven-inch, ‘Alice Practice’, certainly drew a line in the scene. A scabrous three-minute headfuck of colliding synths, banshee vocals and wirey distortion, it served notice that Crystal Castles had no interest in joining The Ting Tings and Santogold in a pop-orientated electro putsch. Instead, while claiming not be influenced by anyone (yeah, right), the Canadian duo obviously harked back, pre-new rave, to electroclash, and the mixing of noisy techno, ’80s synth-pop and confrontational performance art once favoured by the likes of Miss Kittin & The Hacker and Chicks On Speed. That ‘Alice Practice’ was said to be an accidental outtake from a soundcheck, rather than a proper song, and that it was then released by Merok (after Klaxon Jamie Reynolds recommended it to his flatmate, Merok owner Milo Cordell) only compounded the sense that Crystal Castles were some kind of trendy scenester in-joke. Which is ridiculous, of course. Like-minded creative people flock together; it’s natural. Join in. Or get over it.
However, the generally charmless way Crystal Castles have since conducted themselves in interviews has tested the patience of even their biggest fans. “It’s a misconception about us that we hate interviews or publicity,” Ethan Kath insisted in last week’s NME, and, to be fair, CC have opened up to us – as much as they ever do to anyone. But the bored, sniggering, deliberately opaque persona they have presented to the world elsewhere is just tedious. Either they’re trying to wreathe themselves in mystique; have nothing to say; or think they’re a lot cleverer than everyone else. Either way, when bands as diverse as Foals and The Enemy are giving Britain music to believe in, CC’s studied, jaded cool is, kind of, like, whatever, dude. Get over yourselves. Hopefully, they now have.
If you approach the album with certain reservations about the band themselves, it is testament to Glass and Kath’s synthetic sorcery that, 16 tracks later, you’re left somewhere between intrigued and awestruck. We Are Scientists might have the interview technique, but Crystal Castles have the tunes. Unsurprisingly, ‘Crystal Castles’ doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve. It reveals almost nothing about the band as people. Several tracks are (near) instrumentals, such as ‘Reckless’, a dark, grand machine-pop beast that’s the match of anything The Knife have ever done, or the deliciously twisted ‘Knights’, a track littered with the sounds of crying… or is it laughter? As for the rest, Alice’s vocals are so treated as to be 90 per cent indecipherable. ‘Crystal Castles’ is an enigmatic album of moods, tones and emotional confusion, rather than autobiographical specifics.
It is also, perhaps more importantly, an album absolutely overloaded with spine-tingling, pulse-quickening electro noises. Supposedly (naturally, the band won’t discuss it), Ethan uses old Atari sound chips in his keyboards to get Crystal Castles’ vintage arcade game/eight-bit sound. He’s not the first to do it. From Rephlex producers to French laptop mentalists DAT Politics, people at the fringes of electronic music have been rocking the Pac Man-aesthetic for years. But, in music, it doesn’t matter who’s first, it matters who’s best.
You will hear nothing better this year than the four absolutely essential tracks here. Compelling opener ‘Untrust Us’ – all flowing, interlinking pulses and cooing, soft-focus vocals – is as sad as sped-up footage of a motorway at night. ‘Crimewave (Crystal Castles Vs Health)’ and the disturbingly perky ‘Air War’ are both supernaturally cool. The irresistible way the latter kicks in around one-and-a-half minutes is like the first surging effects of some unknown drug that could yet turn out to be a very bad trip. ‘Vanished’, meanwhile, complete with mystery male vocal, is just sensational, a weightless, sleekly designed electro-disco anthem.
The only flawed tracks are those on which Crystal Castles wilfully abandon pop for noise. The treble-drenched, bug-eyed ‘Love And Caring’ is cathartically harsh, but ‘Alice Practice’ and ‘XXZXCUZX Me’ lack real brutal, effervescent energy. It ends with ‘Tell Me What To Swallow’, a lovely acoustic moment: choral, ghostly and an indication that there’s much more to come from Crystal Castles.
As media characters, they may be difficult to love, but it’s easy to get seriously smitten with the music. New rave is over. The likes of frYars, Late Of The Pier and Crystal Castles are taking electro into darker, more interesting territory. No glowstick required.
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