Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles
Universal Motown (2010)

When Ethan Kath and Alice Glass released their first LP as Crystal Castles, they sounded like a candidate for the Future of Music. Listening to their glitchy chiptune funk transported me to an oddly alluring dystopia where cyborgs clad in neon tights, ironic t-shirts and stunner shades swayed semi-rhythmically back and forth at the cyber-disco while avoiding eye-contact with one another. While I wasn't entirely comfortable about the prospect in living in such a future myself, the music was slick and compulsively listenable. Other listeners hyped the album like crazy, and thus the Castles had to deliver on feverish expectations of an improved sophomore record. The final result is – brace yourself – not bad.

So what are the differences between Crystal Castles and Crystal Castles? More than the titles suggest. There are fewer straight-forward dance tracks, and if the original played like a party album, this one is better suited for coffee shops or mopey headphone trips. IDM, industrial, and shoegaze are clear touchstones on the album, and the best tracks all benefit from this hazier, dreamier approach. A good portion of the album still thumps along with stock house beats, but there are more “experimental” (read: “half-baked”) forays than before. Let's hope that if these are truly experiments, that the next version will patch the bugs.

Okay, that was a groan-worthy analogy, but really, the discrepancy between good and bad songs on the album is glaring. Spoilers! I'm going to list all the good songs here: “Celestica,” “Baptism,” “Empathy,” “Suffocation,” “Vietnam,” “Pap Smear,” and “Not In Love.” So, precisely half the album. Some of these songs are absolutely spell-binding, but the sum product is uneven and over-long. Supposedly 30 songs were written for the album (14 were used), and that's telling, because there are simply too many ideas competing for attention. A few dope tracks aside, the whole is less satisfying than its predecessor. But what about those dope tracks?

Occupying the coveted number 2 slot on the album, “Celestica” sets the bar high. It's a four-minute jaw-dropper that has Alice in her dreamy / druggy register swooning over pulsing waves of cosmic froth. The tunes are some of the most memorable on the album, and the blissful atmosphere will make you loath to move on to another track. “Baptism” is more of a groover, breaking out the familiar retro-game synths in full effect for a boss lead melody, giving way to head-banging hoovers and Glass' sickly yawlps. Another standout, “Not In Love,” is a cover that outright destroys the mediocre original by new wave oddities Platinum Blonde. Crystalline chords bend and sway, and the robot-chimpmunk vocals grow oddly endearing. The conclusion amps up the chorus, summoning an awe-inspiring blizzard of feedback and invoking what can only be called heartache.

Meanwhile, the filler / interlude tracks more often induce headaches. On songs like “Fainting Spells” and “Doe Deer,” Kath and Glass both crank up the noise influence – but songcraft and melodies suffer. These aggro riot-grrl spasms are intriguing, but never reach the heights of psycho delerium found in the anarchic sounds of groups like Melt-Banana or Fuck Buttons. Without verse / chorus structures, Kath tends to add and subtract loops like a bored guy playing around on FruityLoops – and fails to build songs through hypnotic progression, which is the trick every hardcore electronica programmer has mastered. All this adds up to a pretty obvious conclusion: the Castles have a better ear for pop than electronica. They thrive on solid chord progressions and dance beats, not chaos.

That said, the risks on this album could lead to greater rewards if Kath and Glass refine their sound on the third installment. It's fun to see the duo flex their muscles and try on new hats, but hopefully they either get buff or find some flattering headgear. Else, they'll be experimenting for experiment's sake without learning anything, which just leads to more and more awkwardness. This release gives the impression that Crystal Castles aren't as versatile as they think. Then again, we need engagingly flawed works as much as we do masterpieces.

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