“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being”
— Albert Camus
The long and winding road to Crystal Castles’ (III) has been one bizarre, beguiling ride. When they first arrived in their 8-bit, glitch-tech infancy they were one of the most truly despised ‘n’ divisive bands in town. Brilliantly so. A waif ‘n’ stray Bonnie & Clyde blitz’d up in a blaze of infamy, fists, broken bottles, blood ‘n’ mascara, white noise and cries of “Stick ’em up muthafuckers we come fo’ what’s ours”. When their self-titled début arrived in ’08 many hats were eaten but few predicted the disenfranchised hordes that would eventually swarm to see them parade their follow-up two years later. Thus the level of anticipation around (III) poses an intriguing dilemma for such rebellious anarchists; once leper’d pariahs, now feted artistes – how would they cope with being….loved?
If anything (III) pushes Ethan Kath and Alice Glass’s boat away from the harbouring shoreline, back to the shadows, back to the source. They could’ve easily dispatched a factory line of “Baptism” clones and sat back and counted their bloomin’ booty. But though (III) may superficially appear a less brutal beast than its predecessors, beneath the surface it’s deeper, sharper and way, way darker. In many ways it evokes comparison – if only thematically – with Manic Street Preachers’ third album The Holy Bible and its dead end manifesto “So damn easy to cave in / Man kills everything”. Glass has long since shared chief Manic Richey Edwards’ accurs’d eye for inspired tragic romantic imagery but never more so than here. Visions haunted by atrocity, inequality, corruption, decay, the weight of history, religious hypocrisy, soul contamination and well, general disgust at humanity. It’s George Orwell’s 1984 bled through a Marshall, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.
The sound itself though is a hallucinogenic cocktail of dreams and nightmares. From the opening bars there is a sense of this-world-is-fucked and this-ship-is-goin’-down. “Plague” drags its wheezing, apocalyptica-now Mad Max verses toward an illuminated EST strobin’ chorus, “I AMMM! The PLAAGGUE!” sneers Glass like Rotten reborn. It rolls into Dodge like some shit storm colossus signalling the end of days. Planet Earth, erase and rewind! “I need you pure / I need you clean”. “Wrath of God” similarly pirouettes the chasm between twinkly, sparkly lullaby and DEFCON 1 wake-up call. When the red mist descends and its headbangin’, chased-by-an-axeman chorus cracks the whip it’s a pure adrenalin rush. Elsewhere, the muffled twitch ‘n’ buzz of “Kerosene” again feels like morphine drip-drop dreamin’. As throughout (III), Glass appears as Mary Magdalene hitchhiking across Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, her healing hand eternally outstretched, “I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen and I’ll wash you clean”.
Despite Kath’s insistence that there are “No R’n’B songs” on (III) there are moments that have a well, swing ‘n’ roll to them. The bouncin’ low rider grooves of the soothing “Affection” tip a subtle wing mirror to the ilk of Ciara and Aaliyah, as well as their own “Baptism”. A sultry driveby through the burning midnight city. As ever its lushly romantic façade hides a more despondent, brutalized mind, “Catch a moth hold it in my hand / Crush it casually”. “Pale Flesh” also befriends vaguely hip hop beats but leads them gleefully into the asylum. Glass’ vocals layered, stretched, contorted. It’s three minutes in a padded cell, echoing, rollin’, twisting. “Adolescent fiancé / I’m just flesh to give away”. Fiendishly macabre and compellingly odd.
It’s not all paraffin, pneumonia and pesticides though (OK, it mostly is). The strobetasmic, hands in the air, blow your whistle, waltzer ride instrumental “Telepath” is surely built for future mid set costume changes. “Mercenary” hides – behind the wall of flickering flames and Iron Giant skull crushin’ bass – one swoonsome pop melody. Tuneful, hypnotic. “Sad Eyes” though is the real old skool, get-right-on-one-matey, E’s ‘n’ Whizz rave banger, bright enough to ignite 80,000 hearts in a field near you for eternity. Easily the most commercial moment on (III) it’s almost ‘Eurobeat 101’ Class of ’91. So classically pop it’s even got a middle eight. But just in case you’d forgotten the ‘End is Nigh’ it’s promptly beheaded by a mildly annoying, militant 90-second ear slashin’ assault called “Insulin”.
(III) is some heavy mutha f’sure, a terrible beauty. The Omen Monks and weeping Nuns of the Argento-esque “Transgender” are here to remind you “Nothing can live up to promise…and you’ll never be pure again”. The dead disco dancer of “Violent Youth” similarly paces the cage like a Hi-NRG Suspiria and proves one of the album’s high points. Kath’s vocal redialed and refeminized to channel some curs’d angel of death. It’s rosary beads, knives, godless chapels, black silhouettes against ‘profondo rosso’ skies. Creepy as hell but as infectious as a Vampire’s lustful kiss, “Drink up little girl…they will always let you down”. Contrary buggers they are (III) ends with Crystal Castles’ most fragile, graceful moment yet, “Child I Will Hurt You” is, despite its threatening title, the brightest star in heaven. A music box melody skating across a pure, icy, crystalline wonderland. It’s the release, the sun rising, the warm, embracing glowing light at the end of the tunnel, the soul escaping the shell and hell, it’s… a beauty. A terrible beauty.
(III) is the sound of two people jumping off the edge of the world by their own free will. Despite all safety regulations I’d strongly recommend following them. Trivial niggles aside (it’s short and as such sometimes feels cruelly curtailed) this is a sharp, smart record which bookends what is now a formidable rave-to-the-grave trilogy. A last kiss before a righteous middle finger to the world. Lyrically its mean streets are awash with glorious, angels-with-dirty-faces poetry which simultaneously serve as psychiatrist’s dream and nightmare. Flesh ‘n’ bones, sterilized Samaritans, “Bruised embryos” and piercing nails that “Grow through the glove”. Just think Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter swinging those “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckles, ahollering “Salvation is a last minute business, boy”. Perennial outsiders to the death, Crystal Castles’ third act is inspiring, warped, feverishly uncomfortable, bold, bloody and brilliant.