As far as debut albums go, 2008’s Crystal Castles was one of this decade’s most striking. Sounding quite unlike anything that came before, its 16 tracks cobbled together a variety of electronic sounds using rock dynamics, producing an electro-punk record that was as compelling as it was combustible. Eight-bit chirps, blasts of static and distorted synths collided violently with harsh, overdriven beats and Death From Above 1979 samples, while Alice Glass’ effects-laden shrieks kept the listener transfixed. It was a volatile record and one sensed that it would not be easily duplicated, even by its own architects.
Thankfully, though, they haven’t tried. Despite bearing the same title as its predecessor, 2010’s Crystal Castles is an entirely different animal. Far from the rough-hewn, spontaneous constructions of the band’s debut, these songs are rendered with depth, clarity and above all, a sense of purpose. By and large, these 14 tracks sound like pop songs, replete with dance beats, discernable choruses and memorable hooks. And yet, despite these concessions, Crystal Castles manages to retain the same spirit of mischief and recklessness that made the band’s debut so exhilarating.
“Fainting Spells” eases the listener in, as it were, with nearly three minutes of static and chopped up screams before leading into “Celestica”, wherein we first encounter Glass’ unadorned voice, set atop a club-ready beat and shimmering synths. It’s a disarming moment: stripped of the vocal effects for which she is known, Glass sounds approachable — innocent, even. “When it’s cold outside / Hold me / Don’t hold me,” she sings, making the duo’s intentions clear: to hold the listener at arm’s length, even as the songs beckon.
And do they ever beckon. “Suffocation” offers up a slinky electro-pop romp, with a vocal from Glass that’s simultaneously crystal clear and wholly unintelligible. “Violent Dreams” marries cliché house sounds with an oppressive cathedral organ line, resulting in a goth-pop tune that’s equal parts danceable and menacing. “Vietnam”, the album’s centerpiece, is a densely layered dance floor leveler, driven by layers of luminous synths and a massive, four-on-the-floor beat. And “Year of Silence” finds the band embracing its irreverence once again, sampling the vocal from Sigur Rós’ “Inni mér syngur vitleysingur” in order to cast Jónsi’s pleas in a surprisingly sinister light.
Crystal Castles might be a more welcoming album than its predecessor but it’s hardly afraid to confront. “Doe Deer”, for example, grafts heavily distorted, piercing screams on to a fragmented, fuzzed-out synth line. “Birds” sabotages what would otherwise read like a boilerplate post-punk number by pushing a recurring, squelchy pop to the front of the mix. And “I Am Made of Chalk” bubbles over with disconcerting, vaguely human noises that subvert the song’s wistful tone.
There’s a reason why so many acts stumble on their sophomore albums: saddled by expectations, young bands tend to either play it safe or succumb to delusions of grandeur. On Crystal Castles, Glass and Ethan Kath manage to sidestep both of these traps by splitting the difference between their origins and ambitions. They’ve made a bigger, denser, more accessible record but in so doing, have not lost sight of their strengths — rather, those strengths now shine through even more clearly. If Crystal Castles offers any indication, electro’s enfants terribles might just be a lot more wise than they let on.