Crystal Castles – ‘(III)’

Ethan and Alice soften their apocalyptic visions and wilful sonic evil with hints of tenderness and a David Guetta moment

In 2006, after toiling for some years in a dire rock’n’roll band called Kill Cheerleader, Ethan Kath swapped his guitar for some keyboards, recruited an 18-year-old named Alice Glass from a Toronto noise band called Fetus Fatale, and went electro. Their early singles, ‘Alice Practice’ and ‘Courtship Dating’, were club music of sorts. But while dance music traditionally speaks of good times and euphoric abandon, Crystal Castles made it into something drained, damaged and nihilistic. Oh, and popular. What began as a bedroom project spread its tendrils across ballrooms and festival main stages, with Alice often carried away kicking and screaming on a sea of arms. Playing venues of this size demands an artistic rethink: four-track demos will not wash here.

And so Crystal Castles’ third album ushers in a new approach. Recorded in Warsaw with Kath’s digital arsenal of old replaced by vintage analogue synthesizers, it retains something of Crystal Castles’ initial approach – a spontaneous first-take policy still reigns – but adds a bigger sound and glossy production values to the mix.

This wasn’t guaranteed to turn out well. For one, ‘analogue synths’ are what literally everybody from Hot Chip to Metronomy to James Murphy is banging on about these days. And two, Crystal Castles have always felt as digital as a corrupt data file – the last people you’d expect to go analogue. But as the first tracks from ‘(III)’ began to sneak out, it was clear Ethan and Alice had found a way to expand their palette without losing their essence. First there was ‘Plague’ – an apocalyptic liturgy retooled for the dancefloor – and then the exceptional ‘Wrath Of God’. It beams in on a pulsing, David Guetta-like synth fanfare, with something sinister coursing through its veins. The melodies take on a funereal hue while Alice’s voice goes from subsumed to strangulated, and the pummelling beats sound less like freedom and more like a prison.

But ‘(III)’ is, unmistakably, the sound of a band softening. Yes, there are moments of wilful sonic evil: see ‘Insulin’, its beats distorted as if cushioned by concrete, Alice’s wails stuttering through the mix as if broadcast through a run-down walkie-talkie. But as the cover image – a striking picture of a burka-clad woman cradling a wounded relative, shot in Yemen by photojournalist Samuel Aranda (see panel) – suggests, ‘(III)’ is out to find moments of beauty in a world full of ugliness.

The skull-splitting shrieks of songs like 2010’s ‘Baptism’ have been excised almost entirely, as ‘Transgender’ and ‘Violent Youth’ take a gentler vocal tack. And there’s a toned-down sentiment to match. “I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen”, sings Alice, softly, on ‘Kerosene’. ‘Affection’, meanwhile, feels like a song of sincere yearning, although it’s tough to say for sure, with the shape of her words obscured amid the blurry synths. And that’s before we even get to ‘Child I Will Hurt You’, which for all the dark intent of its title comes over as a sort of snowglobe lullaby. You’d mistake it for new-age warbler Enya were it not for the twinkling, icicle melodies.

Elsewhere, earlier techniques have been refined. That trick they played on 2007’s ‘Crimewave’ – vocals chopped up and re-spun as beautiful gibberish – works beautifully on ‘Pale Eyes’ and ‘Kerosene’. Elsewhere, Ethan edges their sound closer to euphoric trance, with ‘Sad Eyes’ feeling like a bold move in a game of chicken in which losing is not being killed in a fiery automobile accident, but being mixed into an Ibiza terrace set by Judge Jules.

The first Crystal Castles album (2008’s ‘Crystal Castles’) was a punkish exhortation to murder on the dancefloor. For ‘(III)’, they’ve remade themselves. Not entirely. But in toning down the shock and awe, they’ve revealed the beating heart at the centre of their work. The message, still, is that the world is a cruel and fucked-up place. But being doomed seldom sounded so beautiful.

Louis Pattison