Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles

Mehan Jayasuriya

A battery-powered fortress of disorienting electro-punk, Crystal Castles serves as the perfect introduction to the twisted world of Ethan Kath and Alice Glass.

Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles

Label: Last Gang
US Release Date: 2008-03-18
UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.