[20 July 2008]
Not too long ago, electro was in trouble. While the second coming of Daft Punk brought renewed interest and energy to the genre, it also invited stagnation. With French House torchbearers Kitsuné and Ed Banger both caught in an endless loop, an army of Daft Punk clones (Digitalism, Surkin, Goose, Boys Noize, etc.) was free to march on clubs all over the world. Luckily, 2008 offered a way out for electro, though it took a couple of outsiders (i.e. non-Europeans) to sort things out. As it turns out, the way forward is actually a look back, as the best electro albums of this year all draw heavily from sounds of the past. For example, Melbourne, Australia’s Cut Copy took a page out of the New Order playbook, mixing post-punk propulsion with analog synths and four-on-the-floor beats to produce fist-pumping, crossover jams. In New York, Hercules and Love Affair dug even deeper into dance music history, crafting an electronic disco record that manages to not sound like a throwback. And in Toronto, Crystal Castles combined an array of dated 8-bit noises with breakneck drum programming and punk rock posturing, constructing an album that sounds at once both futuristic and deeply nostalgic.
Out of this class of 2008, the duo known as Crystal Castles is both the most iconoclastic and the most convincing. Their stripped-down, yet grimy aesthetic spits in the face of maximalist electro, offering a counterpoint to the polished, melodically overstated sound of Daft Punk and their progeny. Critics have been falling over themselves to describe Crystal Castles’ sound ever since their inception, and it’s not hard to see why: at a time when electronic music is dominated by imitators, Crystal Castles sound quite unlike anything else out there. Predictably, this has led to quite a bit of exposure, not to mention some justifiably high expectations. But there always comes a time to pay the piper, and so after four years worth of limited 7” singles, high-profile tours, and steadily building hype, we’ve finally arrived at Crystal Castles, the duo’s self-titled, full-length debut.
If Crystal Castles has a weakness, it’s that many of the songs contained within have appeared previously on earlier singles, EPs and splits. Still, it’s hard to complain when the album draws so much strength from these songs, even if they are the exact same versions that early adopters have been wearing out on their turntables for years. It’s still hard to believe that the band’s first single, “Alice Practice”, was the result of an unscrupulous studio blunder; its Atari tones glitter like so many gold coins, as vocalist Alice Glass’ distorted yelps twist and writhe in the pixilated debris. “Crimewave” might be a remix, but it sure as hell doesn’t sound like one, a testament to the fact that keyboard wizard Ethan Kath manages to dress the song up in the Castles’ trademark icy hedonism. “Xxzxcuzx Me” is both delightfully abrasive and irresistibly danceable, its blistering waves of digital noise tempered by an ultra-compressed house beat. And “Air War” sounds as fresh as it did when it first dropped last year, which is to say that it could still pass for a dance hit sent back from a dystopian future.
The new songs aren’t half bad either. “Untrust Us” flirts with—gasp!—techno clichés, but manages to twist itself into something genuinely sexy and far more sinister. Meanwhile, lead single “Courtship Dating” sounds like a top 40 hit trapped inside a pallid electroclash body. “Vanished”, an echoey tunnel of fuzzed-out synths and bouncy, cartoonish tones, finds Kath taking a turn at the mic, but don’t worry, his vocals are as inscrutable as Glass’ megaphone barking. Finally, closing track, “Tell Me What to Swallow”, is the riskiest Crystal Castles song yet, as it finds the band abandoning electronics completely. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, a microphone and a whole lot of echo, the band turns in a subdued two minutes of hazy, melodic shoegaze. The fact that the song manages to feel jarring after nearly an hour of unabashedly jarring music is a feat in itself.
As is often the case with inventive, genre-defying records, Crystal Castles leaves the listener with a number of unanswered questions. Where does this music come from? How is it made? Unfortunately, the album’s packaging offers few clues. Its cover features an oft-reused shot of Glass and Kath with heads bowed; it’s booklet features a zoomed-in version of that same image on one side and an enlargement of the now-infamous Trevor Brown Madonna on the other; the back cover contains only the song titles and label emblems. While it’s quite possible that the album’s artwork was merely an afterthought, it seems more likely that the band’s ambivalence in this matter is fully intentional. Given the number of controversies that have surrounded Crystal Castles in recent months (accusations of stolen artwork and uncleared samples chief among them) it’s not hard to imagine why Kath and Glass might not want to show their faces—in some circles, they’re spoken of as if they were criminals, rather than musicians. I would argue, however, that Crystal Castles are more like the musical equivalent of hackers, subverting hardware (the Atari 5200 sound chip in Kath’s modified keyboard), software (the standard electro format) and other programmers (their peers in the oft-overlooked chiptone movement) in order to produce something that’s as distinct as it is disruptive.