“Every song we write is bleak. We don’t want anything else.” Ethan Kath, one-half of festival-conquering Toronto goth-dance duo Crystal Castles told NME earlier this year not to expect rays of light beaming from the band’s third consecutive self-titled album. He’s not exactly mischaracterizing the sound of their first two records, but he does understate their appeal. They were nihilistic, crazed, and blurred-out to holy fuck, yes, but they also had a reckless abandon that was actually quite fun. The first one was higher energy, more eclectic and disjointed, with singer Alice Glass adding lunatic barks to malfunctioning Nintendo loops. The second was sadder and slicker, with better grooves and bigger hooks. Now their third (which we will refer to as the Led Zep-ish III) is way more dejected than either, spider-webbing the group’s devil-may-care attitude with cracks of earnest concern.
Glass has been downright misanthropic in her advance interviews, talking about the world as “a dystopia where victims don’t get justice and corruption prevails.” Reading along to III’s lyric sheet confirms that that blackest of black worldviews permeates every song. For example, a song ironically called “Affection” is anchored to the line, “Catch a moth, hold it in your hand. Crush it casually.” The record’s cover art, appropriating photojournalist Samuel Aranda’s famed image of anguish in the Arab Spring protests, suggests a newly overt political bent, a defiance that goes beyond sneering pessimism. Listening to the record without those context guides is tricky.
Kath’s production blankets everything in a queasy synth fog and warps Glass’s vocal until she sounds like the ghost of a robot living in a cavern. III’s alternating shoegaze moping and rave-y death disco are both coated with thick smears of mournful grime. It is successfully unsettling, abstract and dehumanized in a way that might further redeem the unreal style that was briefly called “witch-house.” (Purity Ring’s record this year helped, too.) Its despondency is abundantly clear on an emotional level, but making out specific details is often totally impossible.
album’s ultimate focus, it should be noted that Crystal Castles have found electronic textures on this record that go beyond those they have previously. They ping to poles of extremity. “Insulin” is practically the sound of pure distortion, cobbling crackling air into aggressively structured chaos, floating half-melodies that cut out in mid-waft. It’s totally brutal (and pretty exciting). They end the album with “Child I Will Hurt You,” a characteristically bummed song about parents failing their children that’s easily the most beautiful thing they’ve ever recorded. Its dread is written with shooting-star, music-box twinkling. The mastery of texture displayed here should once and for all shelve the band's early reputation as 8-bit primitives. But still, they're certainly not having any fun. It’s the difference between an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world giddiness that asks, “What does anything matter, anyway?” and a post-apocalyptic numbness that pleads, “How can we even go on?” It's a chasm too deep for strobe lights to overcome.
Photo Courtesy Crystal Castles