Crystal Castles reminds me of that episode of Night Court where the judge falls for an art scene punk rocker. The punchline at the end is when he finally hears her album. If I recollect, the nostalgic moment is destroyed by the fact that her music consists solely of a woman screaming by the railroad tracks. Of course Crystal Castles doesn’t sound like a woman screaming by the railroad tracks unless you were to put a a robot symphony in front of her. I draw the connection to the sit-com artist because our hero Harry’s pretentious lover might have screamed a plot point or something to guide the listener, beyond raw shouting. In the same way, despite a great deal of emotional intensity to the music, there is a barrier between Crystal Castles and their audience. On their album II, it’s never explicit what the songs are about, even with helpful titles like “Pap Smear” and “Doe Deer.” Where Alice Glass‘s vocals are actually words they are inscrutably distorted with effects. One gets the impression it is deliberate. Their album art is vague and their website has no bio. Even in concert, Alice explodes, tossing her screaming body across the stage, but almost entirely obscured by smoke. Crystal Castles is a band that’s determined to remain abstract.
The last track, “I Am Made of Chalk” is a fine example. It sounds like a cat being violently transformed into a manatee before dissolving into a puddle of cat-manatee. The catmatee is a thankful accent to the beautiful synth behind that. Otherwise it would be too damn pretty. The balance is perfect, but what it is beyond the soundtrack to a nightmare, I have no idea.
But despite my distrust of any attempts they have to be obtuse, I can’t compare it to the geometric compositions that give our halls of modern art a bad name. No, because unlike a pile of circles and boxes, Crystal Castles is damn effective. Those glitches and loops and shouts stir my blood. Music is the most primal of the arts and their self-titled II succeeds like the sound a of a riot two blocks over. It’s all questions and no answers. They make me gasp, my heart beats faster, like running toward an explosion at a clown convention: bold and bright and bloody and fearful and ugly, with torn rubbery masks and tufts of cotton and feather floating.
Yet, II is so skillfully constructed it strikes the intellect. Their crescendos are perfectly measured. Much is going on in any one song, various sound effects layered in delightfully frightful ways. If you’re the type who’s been trained to think of electronic music as repetitive and unchanging, Crystal Castles will grab you by the eggs—as soon as the keyboard has you convinced there is some kind of pattern, there is something akin to an explosion, usually accompanied by Alice’s voice. On “Doe Deer” it sounds like she is calling to you from Tron, a pixelated cry to save her from the terrible fate of those trapped in video games. It’s music that stirs the imagination. Its alternation of pattern and complexity will entertain the Sudoko-solving side of your brain.
So they are primal while also thoroughly, clinically intellectual. Well Crystal Castles is full of contradictions. They sound masculine and feminine. They have the angry urgency of punk and the cold bass of the dance club. You could call them industrial, but there are too many pretty moments for such a dirty moniker. They whip the chipper sounds of nostalgic video games into a magical brew darker than Rasputina.
The album opens with an interesting enough intro that could be confused with your standard EDM fair. But then it hits you with a wall of beats and bells bliss. It’s like the explosion of a glitter bomb.Therein lies the flux, the back and forth between pattern and chaos.
Take “Intimate.” The song combines a relentless fast keyboard melody with a series of crescendos that give the sensation the song is rising up and up until it hits a static. Which turns into a wash and then there’s that melody again… well I don’t want to give any spoilers, suffice to say the song has more drama than a sci-fi marathon. And did I mention that I have no idea what they’re singing about?
I am tempted to use the word 8-bit. That’s how I came to Crystal Castles, in search of bands that sample the video games of my childhood. But to call Crystal Castles 8-bit is like calling Dickens a soap opera. Most of the 8-bit out there is simplistic and gimmicky at best. If Ethan Kath is building instruments out of Game Boys than that’s all well and good but the music holds its own outside of originality of medium. Any snatches of Mario and Link will be obliterated into abstraction, just like everything else. You are left with something intriguing that refuses to be pinned down by anything that came before it. This is the promise of electronic music: We won’t need instruments because all recorded sounds will be their instruments. The collage possibilities will be infinite. Crystal Castles may be the first band to really deliver on that promise.