III – Crystal Castles (Review)

If musicians are the chroniclers of the times they live in, and should the human race in one form or another survive the cataclysmic fate that some believe is unavoidable, our descendants will listen to Crystal Castles and wonder why the hell we didn’t see the error of our ways. No other band manages to embody all the confrontation, conflict, and stress of these End Times or deliver such a fiercely aggressive and unyieldingly bleak vision of this modern tribulation we call life in the 21st Century. Humans of the future will play Crystal Castles’ glitch-riven onslaught and understand immediately why we pretty much got what we deserved. Everything we could have learned about ourselves is here in gory, visceral detail – yet ignored to our shame.

The first two albums by Alice Glass and Ethan Kath will sound to them like the end of the world itself; a two-pronged feral assault of screaming, panic-edged vocals and malfunctioning techno shock and awe, leaving few in doubt that the last years of humanity were a frantic, frightening, flesh-tearing descent into chaos. This third album, (III), is still oppressive, claustrophobic and downright unlistenable in places but in the review of humanity’s catastrophe it would represent the final eerie slide into resigned horror, as if Crystal Castles had managed to record humankind’s exhausted death throes as it raged against every machine; breathless, hopeless and fighting against the dying of the light as the clock ticked closer to midnight. (III) is filled with references to blood, wounds, antiseptics, and soil which gives it a touch of torture porn which is unsettling at best and at worst makes the listening experience feel like the scraping of disease off the last morsel of food which could keep you alive. Many have praised Glass and Kath for their nihilistic approach to electronica and the reflection of the septic world we are seemingly cursed to inhabit. And as a document of our time, (III) is maybe the closest we get to the musical interpretation of our modern malaise.

Life can be shit and horrible things happen to decent people every day. Putting wake-up calls into music is nothing new and message-driven art is an essential part of the informative process; it reaches millions in ways that other documentation can’t. But does it have to pierce the soul like the cries of a parent mourning a deceased child? Does it have to unsettle and unnerve like the screeching whine of incoming munitions? When presented this way, there leaves little room for hope and even when the message is grave, music should always offer some hint at redemption. You’ll find none here.

Commendations

The album opens with ‘Plague’, a sinister siren-driven intro which has hints of the unnerving Alien scream of Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece. Beside the ebbing and climbing wails, early 90s rave synths phase in and out, stabbing in the dark for supple flesh to pierce, until Alice Glass eerily begins to whisper childlike threats of bodily invasion: “I need you pure, I need you clean…Don’t try to enlighten me …” The pace quickens as the first of Kath’s incessantly annoying production effects kicks in. A word of warning: throughout the entire album you’ll be checking for loose wires – be aware now, it isn’t a malfunction, only lazy and unimaginative phasing which effectively ruins every track. Soon Glass is screaming “I am the plague” and the uncomfortable and cacophonous opening assault is complete.

‘Kerosene’ offers some hope that the entire album won’t be a sustained and relentless aural rape. It’s a pumping atmospheric dance track with something approaching a tune buried somewhere under the layers of unnecessary effects. But again, the stuttering production techniques which make it sound like the electricity meter is in desperate need of feeding ruins what could have been a peerless example of witch house.

‘Wrath of God’ begins eerily with an encouragingly trance-like melody but before long the phasing begins and Glass tries to make a vocal impression on the track only to have her Red Riding Hood voice ripped apart by Granma Kath’s big production teeth. Glass’s voice is processed within an inch of its life and at some point she becomes ultrasonic. The song finds its feet again with the introduction of an urgent drum beat which makes it engaging but its total sum is a mess. The same can also be said for ‘Affection’ which is an effective slow burner which gets brutally murdered by the production as it struggles to find its keys.

‘Pale Flesh’ summons the image of the famous monkey’s-with-typewriters-creating-the-compete-works-of-Shakespeare scenario. It sounds as though a bunch of chimps have been left with a room full of synthesizers while an epileptic subway accordion player attempts to conduct the primate melody from an adjoining apartment. It will take a brave and relentless soul to find worth among the litter.

The pace and quality of (III) hits the highest level with ‘Sad Eyes’. It’s the stand-out track mainly because Kath’s meddling is at a minimum. It’s a haunting yet driving dance tune which leaves you wonder if the sad eyes of the title belong to someone who has had to sift though the detritus on hands and knees to find this one gem.

The reprieve is brief and it’s soon time to return to the mire with ‘Insulin’ which is a broken, scabrous radio signal beamed in through a filthy toilet bowl. This is the aural equivalent of root canal work. You can’t listen to it for pleasure and you can’t dance to it, which leaves you wondering what the point of it all actually is. Perhaps it will find a place on the set-list at Guantanamo Bay. Played continuously at volume, the war on terror would have been over a lot sooner but then the US would have been even more open to increased pressure over its use of torture. Thankfully, the one thing in its favor is that it’s mercifully short.

‘Transgender’ comes next. It has a good club vibe behind it and could actually be described as music if hadn’t been smashed to bits by a producer who apparently sees cohesion as a toy destined to be crushed by a petulant child. Then there’s ‘Violent Youth’… Take the Donald Duck vocals out of the equation and fire the producer and this one would be a dance-floor filler. Unfortunately, as it is, it’s just a bit rubbish.

‘Mercenary’ is welcome only because, for the most part, it’s inoffensive and not trying to cause any cerebral bleeding.

The final track, the pleasantly titled ‘Child I Will Hurt You’ is at least melodic until it once again decides the listener is the enemy and starts jabbing psychotic sleigh bells down your ears to remind you that this album on the whole is a challenge, not pleasure or entertainment.

Next Steps

It has to be said that Crystal Castles seem utterly unrepentant in their approach or vision so one suspects that, should we see it past the end of the Mayan long-count calendar on December 21, 2012, we’ll get an equally – or perhaps bleaker – interpretation of the human condition on IV. Even surviving the apocalypse is unlikely to turn Glass and Kath into life-affirming purveyors of handbag house.

First published on: Puluche.com

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