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Crystal Castles II: A Pixie in a Blender

Crystal Castles in Helsinki
Crystal Castles in Helsinki (source)

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.

Best Dance Remixes of 2009

At long last, here is the list of the Hottest Remixes of 2009. How was this list made? Songs were judged by their propensity for eliciting uncontrollable ass-shaking, head-bobbing and shout outs to your deity of choice. I narrowed further by including only remixes, thus no mash-ups or straight-out hot dance songs. Also, every song was to the best of my research actually produced in 2009…since you can’t exactly look this stuff up on Amazon. Final judging was done by listening to the list backwards to ensure that each song is indeed just that much finer than the last. This is an exercise that I highly recommend.

These mixes are not the songs that make me think “This is really good.” No, no, these are the ones that leave me clutching my breast, uttering, “SO GOOD, SO fucking GOOD” with a primal vehemence that is beyond rational: It is animal. If you feel the need to howl while listening, it’s okay, I understand. Just try to follow it up with some shake-shake-shimmy.


1. HEARTSREVOLUTION – Switchblade (Designer Drugs remix)

(*1st blogged Jan 2009 on Hot Biscuits)

Sick sick sick sick sick. Such a perfect combination of HEARTSREVOLUTION’s dark electro “razor sharp candy coated glass” with DD’s outstanding beats. How can you not hear that scary/sexy voice chanting “if you love me than do it forever” without taking that as a personal call to the dance floor? Personally, my body begins a series of twitches, tremors and knocks that some may call dancing.

2. Radiohead – Everything In Its Right Place (Gigamesh remix)

1st blogged on Jan 2009 on Pretty Much Amazing)

This is not a song that I ever expected to hear in a remix. DJs tend to stick with new songs and when they go for something older its usually a song that’s been established as a pop classic.

Instead, Gigamesh lent his skills to something so dreamy and nonsensical it would be tough to pull off. And yet: what’s so beautiful about this mix is how seamless it is. The bass doesn’t feel at all out of place on those strange but beautiful layered vocals. It’s not a complicated mix, which is fine, because too much cutting and chopping would destroy the surreal magic of the original. Gigamesh somehow ties up all that surreal magic and delivers it to the dance floor.

In my experience, the reaction to this remix has been a combination of wonder and delight. It works just as well in the chillroom as the get-down-throw-down room. And it is very easy to mix with other songs, despite not having a cumbersome, long intro.

3. Rogues – Not So Pretty (Feed Me Remix)

(Only 3 bloggers, all in Feb 09! First was http://www.ohhcrapp.net)

At first it’s just a delightfully upbeat electro pop remix. A clever opening treble sounds like a computer imitating a beat boxer. Then as it drives into the refrain this tasty treat is exactly like Britney Spears: Underneath that pretty pop is something dark and gritty. When the refrain kicks in with the grungy guitar the song growls a little, contrasted with his sweet pretty voice. and just when the music takes a turn back to the pretty he turns gritty, shouting: “You ain’t so pretty!” It may be the PMS talking but this mix is so pretty I could cry.

4. Little Boots – Remedy (Buffetlibre vs Sidechains Remix)

(1st Blogged Jul 2009 on Sheena Beaston)

Songs like this are why I am obsessed with music. Oh! Her little “Oh-uh-oh”s! The whistle! The drum solo! The bass drop that fills me with chills and trembling! Oh-uh-oh! Dancing is indeed my fucking remedy, Little Boots, and these two DJs consistently draw me to the dancefloor. If the snake oil salesmen sold a potion that made me feel like this song does, I’d be the first in line for the cure.

5. Groove Armada – Drop The Tough [The Twelves B-LIVE Remix]

(1st blogged Jan 2009 on This Big Stereo)

The biggest surprise of this list was not who made it, but that the whole thing didn’t end up being a litany of The Twelves greatest hits. By far the most fun live DJ show I’ve seen, The Twelves consistently produce adorable disco takes on the hottest indie songs. This one was my favorite of 2009, but, while some DJs have a mix of bangers and losers, any of their 2009 mixes would be a respectable addition to your Best-Of  list.

6. Jewel Kid – Break My Heart (Computer Club remix)

(1st blogged July 2009 on Penned Madness)

The bass on this hits like a hammer. But a pleasant hammer…a hammer of bright colors perhaps? This song was one of the few that entered my mp3 player in 2009 that never moved out of heavy rotation. Few DJs can rock a beat this hard without it sounding tacky and pasted on. Looking to hear more bangers from this LA DJ in 2010.

7. Empire Of The Sun – We Are The People (Jimmy2sox Remix)

(1st blogged Feb 2009 on This Big Stereo)

There were a ton of remixes of both this song and this album in general when Jimmy2sox came on the scene, by DJs who’s names would not be followed with “Jimmy who?” I already had my favorite “We Are the People” mix all picked out, and my second favorite too. Then this came along. The first time I heard that saxophone solo I was hooked. Who the hell adds a saxophone solo to a remix? Jimmy2sox, that’s who.


8. Metric – Sick Muse (Adam Freeland mix)

(1st blogged Sept 2009 on We like It Indie)

It opens with gorgeous synths that slice like Ginsu knives. Then when you think it’s showed you all it has to show, it seeds this dark bass which leads into hazy snow before picking up and up and up into some heavenly place in Emily Haine’s voice. He doesn’t chop it up too much, leaving choice lyrics such as “all the blondes are fantasies.” No instrument shouts for attention over any of the others; it feels like a song in its own right. I know this song well (Metric is a favorite) and when I’m listening to this mix I still forget which parts are from the band and which are his production.

9. NASA – Gifted (Aston Shuffle remix)

(1st blogged May on Discopunk)

This song is so fantastic to begin with that it needs no remixing. The spacey synths perfectly capture the nostalgia of 80s Freestyle: close your eyes and you might think you’re back in the seventh grade roller skating rink. Not surprisingly, many notable DJs have lent their hand to this tune. I have the Treasure Fingers remix. Oh, how many times I’ve heard the Steve Aoki remix. You be good, you listen to me: this is the mix you play.

10. Sneaky Sound System – It’s Not My Problem (Thin White Duke mix)

(1st blogged May 2009 on This Big Stereo

Her voice comes in like something from a dream. The pitch rises like a tornado and when the beat breaks it crashes like a beautiful wave. This, my lovelies, is where the good little disco beats go when they die.

I have nothing more to say because now I must dance.

P.S. If you own these songs, and you are under the impression that it would be wiser to remove them than allow for the puny quantity of publicity this simple blog provides, let me know and the links will disappear.

*I put more hours than I’d have liked into making sure these songs really came out in 2009. Though the first mention I could find was in 2009, that very post refers to this track on their best of 2008 list. So I sunk more time into trying to find the true release date, as well as contacting Hot Biscuits themselves. Ultimately, searching the site that released the album and the mix itself didn’t post it until 2009.

A Closer Look At: Of Montreal — the Sunlandic Twins

Unlike your average one-download wonders, Sunlandic Twins is a well-produced album with nifty tie-ins that shift the album smoothly from one track to the next. This is an album to listen to from beginning to end, preferably in the space right before dreams start. While some of the songs feel like transition pieces to the better numbers, most of them have an interesting progression and climax. Their sweet sounding harmonious voices are just harsh enough to be rock n’ roll when necessary. Sunlandic Twins is heavy on light keyboards, giving the work that happy sound reminiscent of the best the eighties had to offer.

The album kicks off with “Requiem for OMM2,” which sounds like a leftover from the British Invasion. “I Was A Landscape In Your Dream” is what a brain massage might feel like while “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” is bouncy and bass-y. “Forecast Fascist Future” continues the fantasy with a well-constructed song that is somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Sci-Fi. The lyrics to this track are telling of the band’s narrative style:

The language of the frost lobs dead balloons over ruins today/
In view of wan wordless crowds that chase waifs to spires with fiery plumes./

There’s enough poetry hear to keep the listening interesting beyond the first two or three rotations.

The real gems on the Sunlandic Twins are “So Begins Our Alabee, ” and “The Party’s Crashing Us.” The latter is one for singing and dancing. If these indie-rockers had a club anthem, this would be it. A double-clap beat gives way to an electronic swell. It also features some of the most memorable lyrics I’ve heard in a long time:

Oh well, we made love/ like a pair of black wizards/
you freed me from the past/ you fucked the suburbs out of me./

“So Begins Our Alabee,” has a heavier sound. Like most of the tracks, the bass guitar and keyboard drives the song. This track is so furiously good that hearing it makes my heart beat a little faster.

Give this album a listen. Though the lyrics are at times inexplicable, the riffs are not. I could use your help interpreting their mad genius.