Crystal Castles’ second offering trades pleasureful pain for painful pleasure
Crystal Castles self-titled debut LP was an album that would send fans of “serious music” for the hills, chased by a barrage of screeching Atari noise, uneven beat explosions and vocalist Alice Glass’ unearthly and oft-horrifying lupine scream. Explosive jigsaw tracks like “xxzxcuzx Me” and “Alice Practice” sounded like each of your brain cells was an alarm clock going off at quarter-second intervals. It was the stuff of tweakers’ daydreams and 8-year-olds’ nightmares.
Now, two years later, the Toronto duo of Glass and Ethan Kath return with LP 2, also called Crystal Castles. Just like fellow electro-schizoid Dan Deacon’s progression from Spiderman of the Rings to Bromst, Crystal Castles’ growth from Crystal Castles to Crystal Castles (follow me here) sees the duo, with a few choice exceptions, smoothing out their violent, wiry Gameboy-pop into more fluid swaths of electronic composition.
Less noise means more fans, generally speaking; there’s a reason you’ll find bigger crowds at Tiesto than ADULT.—straight noise is reserved for the more masochistic music fan (this writer included), and the musical pain for pleasure clan is small. Crystal Castles 2 (CC 2 here on out) is a much more accessible record than 1 simply because it lacks the abrasive noise that marks the former. It hurts less.
That’s not to say Crystal Castles have become Chromeo, but rather that these songs are more club-friendly than the duo’s ever been. Second single “Celestica” and the stutter-synth “Baptism” sound like a huge, strobe-heavy party, where glow sticks abound and lasers shoot over the crowd. In that way, CC 2 carries a bigger, broader appeal— where the first LP gnashed and gnawed its way into your brain, CC 2 takes over without such biting, painful force.
Fans who adored the debut because it was so polarizing may shrug at CC 2; less noise, less fun, right? But here’s the bottom line: CC 2 is a better record on almost every front. While, overall, it’s a more balanced effort, the extremes still exist. The bangers hit harder (the two-minute “Doe Deer” is a bloody electric seizure), the pretty moments are prettier (“Not in Love” sounds the way twinkling Christmas lights look) and the overall production quality is higher.
“Year of Silence” (which samples Sigur Ros’ “Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur”) sounds like an exorcism set on the dance floor with Glass casting out evil over crushing fuzz. “Suffocation” could be the most sinister Goldfrapp track never recorded. “Empathy” wouldn’t be out of place played at a lunatic rave held deep inside a pitch-black cave.
CC 2 typifies the notion of dancing together alone. The ping-pong bass of “Vietnam” over twinkling synth pinches and Glass’ chopped-up coos will certainly get a crowd moving and sweating, but there’s no friendly “we are one writhing body” vibe like in so much electronic music. This is musical loneliness, cold-steel solitude. Dance music for lost souls; the rhythmic march of the damned. “Follow me to nowhere,” sings Glass on “Celestica.” Like the album’s cover, the music is a walk through a graveyard at dusk, where death and decay gurgle to the surface. “Cities fall down on me,” Glass whispers on “Empathy,” but “We molt past our skin to make room to begin.” The record’s largely missing noise makes it less acidic, but is this easy listening? Hardly.
The relative calming of Crystal Castles’ seas on CC 2, while maintaining the duo’s penchant for unsettling zombie vocals and harsh static beats, ultimately makes for a more immersive listen. While the first record never let go of your jugular, CC 2’s relative looseness allows you to wander through its vast, austere spaces like you’d explore some haunted mansion — alone and cautious of getting lost.
To call CC 2 accessible electronic music is like playing a 45-minute Grateful Dead track to a novice and asking, “So, do you get it?” But CC 2 is a great entry point to the chemical burn of electronic music’s outer fringe.
Just don’t wander off too far.