So Toronto synthpunk superstars Crystal Castles released their third album last week. Just like their last record, and the record before it, it’s called Crystal Castles, but it seems it’s being stylized as (III) (which is nowhere near as catchy as Melt). I wanted to review this album for you, gentle reader, but with each consecutive listen it became more and more apparent that Crystal Castles’ lack of ambition and originality isn’t limited to their eponymous naming tradition. The LP is a Frankenstein Xerox of a thing, a selection of squarewaves, synthetic bass drums, and avant-house gurgles and pitchshifts cobbled together from the band’s back catalogue. Nothing stands out, no track bears repeating. Alice Glass’ Julee-Cruise-having-a-duet-with-Poly-Styrene-underwater vocals are the same as they’ve ever been. It’s not a step backward, per se, but the band’s unwillingness to evolve is disheartening.
I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of this, really. In retrospect, Crystal Castles have never proven themselves to be all that competent in the art of Albumcraft. Their first release, 2006’s Alice Practice EP, still stands as their one cohesive statement; a four song rallying cry forged out of placeholder vocals, lightning fast bitrock, and pretentious-ass samples of avant-garde singer Cathy Berberian reading Ulysses. When three of the four tracks showed up virtually unchanged on their 2008 debut, their impact was muted, not only by age, but by having to share their space with thirteen far less worthy copycats. With each successive release, it became more obvious that Crystal Castles had created a distinctive and mind-bending sound, only to do nothing of interest with it. They were making cokefiend psychedelia: frenetic and complex but ultimately empty and irritating. Ambient music for people raised in trash compactors. Dubstep for people too cool for dubstep.
And, like dubstep, Crystal Castles prove to be at their best when diluted by outside influence. The Ulysses sample in “Air War,” the secretly recorded vocals that give “Alice Practice” its name, the Robert Smith-assisted re-imagining of Platinum Blonde’s “Not in Love,” and their classic remix of Klaxons’ “Atlantis to Interzone;” what makes these songs so phenomenal is that they are Crystal Castles and. Their admittedly unique sound and vibe isn’t enough to sustain an album; they need that external x-factor to properly succeed.
What I’m getting at is I think it would be neat if Crystal Castles stopped making albums and re-envisioned themselves as a sick production duo. Every once in a while they could do a showcase in the style of N.A.S.A. or Neptunes, but for the most part they would stick to working on other people’s albums and churning out amazing hip-hop singles. Don’t tell me that Alice Glass interjecting with Timbaland-esque “uh-huh’s” and “alrights” wouldn’t be fantastic.
Or maybe that’s just me. Honestly, they can do whatever they want, as long as I’m not listening to the same fucking record, renamed (IV), in 2014.
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