Crystal Castles – III
I still remember my very first experience with Alice Glass’s legendary melodramatic bellowing and the chip-tune infused electronic sound that immediately drew me out of the backseat of my girlfriend’s car to the energetically palliative stage of Crystal Castles. The song was “Love and Caring” from their self-titled album. As I listened to the ping pong oscillating drops and Glass’ raspy raucous words, I was transported into the episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?: Tale of the Pinball Wizard. You know the one where the kid gets trapped in the pinball game and has to play his way out to rescue the girl of his dreams. The entire album felt like I was swaying in the middle of some imaginary arcade. Crystal Castles was hypnotic and grand and novel. Their second album, II, highlighted even more of Glass’ angelic voice often cut with a robotic male presence and strayed further from the verbal eruptions so present in their debut (with the exception of “Fainting Spells”). Kath paired the lullaby lyricist with a fairy tale magic-carpet ride background to guide us on what seemed like our own personal quest. Most of us were excited to find something that spoke for our eternal ennui and isolation; a place we could drum our console blistered fingers to or float on with quiet violent sighs.
Disenchanting was most of III, the pair’s latest album, which wanted so badly to be a more kinetic version of II but missed the mark. Alice returned to her soft, childlike vocals which stunned and melted me into a puddle of pining girl in “Tell Me What to Swallow” off the self-titled but now left me bored and patiently waiting for more. Yes, Alice still hollers her heart out in some songs like “Plague” and “Wrath of God” but in most of them she seems tired. Maybe her locomotive stage presence has finally gotten the best of her. A good example is “Kerosene”; pretty lax with its only saving grace being the sudden rush of tempo and odd Daffy Duck vocals spit intermittently throughout the track. It lacks courage and sounds like typical sway-hop. Alice’s ability to channel a ghost-like quality in her vocals really presents itself in “Pale Flesh,” which would be my favorite ballad if not for the high pitch peculiar fingernails-scrape-the-board break that sounds like an instrument of serial horror. The lapse in the screech does provide a great glimpse into her beautiful ability to conjure us closer with anticipation and continue to echo in our brains. “Sad Eyes,” their surprising single, sounds a lot like an updated version of Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life” but of course, much more devastating. Her voice floats in and out like a specter bouncing off the walls across the room. It’s great they can take such manufactured music and churn out a more heartrending number but this album concludes, for me at least, that Castles yearns to be pop without being pop. They want to be dance without being dance. Unfortunately, sometimes, you’re just moody dance music and nothing more.
There’s plenty I do like from III. “Wrath of God” returns to more of Glass’ infant roots offering high energy vocals with a melodic beat that gets your heart pounding to an amphetamine degree and then sedates you with its mesmerizing thump. It’s a story in itself: intro, climax and resolution that ensnare the eardrums. This is my absolute favorite spooky muse of the album. “Affection” also beguiles me bit by bit although I am thrown off by the chosen beat which has the uncanny stop and start rhythm of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” (seriously, go listen to it) with a throwback to the beginning of “Baptism” from II. Oh, but finally “Insulin” and “Violent Youth” inject me with the old school Alice Glass that my jumping up and down, angry bang-bobbing self craves. Even her lyrics in “Insulin” reflect her elegant despair: “perfume in my blood/nails grow through the glove/bruise my embryo.” “Violent Youth” invites some unknown small girl to “show up in your lace” as Glass has seemed to have done in this album. The former highlights the rage Glass can’t seem to contain in her pretty, tomboy self for too long and the latter allowing her to express her effeminate side. My only complaint: not long enough! The last track, “Child I Will Hurt You” parallels the tenderness of the duo in “Tell Me What to Swallow” and, in my eyes, is sort of the last punch by Glass. It’s as if she is saying, ”Listen, I’m older, wiser, and less hostile, and audience I will crush you with a coo.” Hits my heart a bit, and still, I want a little more kick in the vocals, a little more bass to go along with the rock-a-bye listener feel. Again, I think there’s a sharpness and smartness to the lyrics that is over our head, although, I could be reading too much into it. When she purrs, “taught them with solace/they know a soft caress/to lower your defense” I feel as if she is talking about herself and how she has grown as a performer. Maybe her earlier years were just explosive temper tantrums recorded for eternity and this is her unstiffening and expanding of her temperamental wings.
III plays like a horror movie starring some eerie nine-yea- old girl where you’re just itching to get to the climax. Glass plays a haunting heroine throughout and while I miss the rambunctious hissy fits so indicative of her debut, she does a nice job roping me in with her anesthetized essence. And I do get the howling, rage-filled Glass I fell in love with a little bit, like in “Insulin.” “Plague,” “Affection,” and “Mercenary” (which sounds a bit like Timbaland and Bassnectar) sound recycled from each other. This comes across as lazy and not stylistic. However, thematic instrumentals are true to the duo’s form. One of the reasons I like their first two albums so much is because both played like a tripped out video game, every track just being a level to get to until I faced my devious nemesis at the very end of the journey. Oddly, III is more club-bumper than I am used to as well and this really shines in “Telepath.” The tracks offer a good kick your feet or take off running in the sewers vibe to it, but there are no vocals and all that’s left is barroom background noise. I wouldn’t even recognize this was Crystal Castles had I not been told. Without Glass’ whispers, they lack identity.
Yet, Glass’ feminine vocal qualities do shine through, and my same criticism about the occasional clichéd pulse, allows her talent to actually soar leaving us longing for her personal triumph. II was a more palatable album which combined the juvenile anger of Glass, the pliability of Glass, and Kath’s superior pace and production. III is the pair still finding their chilling groove. Castles’ “Violent Youth” states, I will always let you down, and Glass may be playing with us more than we think. The lyrics are often muffled and we miss these hints of sarcasm and self-deprecation that charm us all the more. Is she really asking us to forgive her for being human? And as she says in “Child I will hurt you, hide all that you could/done for the greater good/later it’s understood.”
We’ll keep listening and trying to understand you, Glass.
Review by Sarah Gawricki.