Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Crystal Castles (2010)



It's not often that one hears music that ingrains itself in the skull so utterly as to push everything else out of it; it's not that it defies comparison to anything, just that it renders such details beside the point. As I've come to see music as more of a social experience than I once did, it's fascinating to discover an album this immersive, one which eskews wide open space in favor of arid, compressed, person-to-person confrontation... and infectious confrontation at that.

The electro-pop duo Crystal Castles has built its career on bubbling, antiquated samples -- often of video games in a touch of 1980s nostalgia -- with abrasive vocals howling overhead. On their second album (eponymous like their debut), they take a turn for delicacy and dreampop while sacrificing none of their strange allure. A completely unexpected treasure (for me), this record is as addictive as they come. While the album is framed by a pair of deliberately abrasive, stabbing songs -- one ("Fainting Spells") with warbling screams of misery that gradually fall into rhythmic place and one (aptly labeled "I Am Made of Chalk") that suggests the same voice after its owner has already begun to drown in some filthy babbling brook -- much of what's in between is a surprising combination of provocative experimentation and pure (if slightly Gothic) dance-pop.

Second track and first single "Celestica" makes clear the disconect, its pounding, insistent beauty and effortless vocal only allowing for a little bit of the patented beeping over in the left channel. Not quite mainstream disco, to be sure, but not in a different world either, with a chilly Alice Glass cooing and wailing quite tunefully over her small soundscape. When the first two cuts on an album have so little in common, it's clear the listener is in for a ride. The payoff comes in waves, in the otherworldly, deep-in-the-earth bodyshaking "Baptism," the confident menace of the ingenious Sigur Ros-derived "Year of Silence," the young, vibrant, ragged, but lovely sound of "Suffocation" with its inescapably engaging sense of journey. The entire first half of the record is, song for song, as good a collection of intelligent dance music as the brightest lights of the genre have ever devised.

The final half flies into two very different directions, less focused but hardly less endearing than the unmissable initial seven cuts. Out of the gate, "Violent Dreams" and "Vietnam" are the album's subtlest moments; the former's dissonance suggests Kevin Shields dance music, fragile and impenetrable, the latter is unbelievably grand club chillout, but both go full-force on sideways electronic vocal tricks, sharing with "Not in Love" an inclination toward burying and blending in the vocals that were so bravely incongruous elsewhere, Alice Glass belting out her intricate words like a Yoko Ono that won everyone's heart, in a shower of distortion and production gimmicry. The effect is enjoyable enough, but it's difficult not to miss the unpretentious emotional directness of the unfiltered vocal tracks.

The rest of Side Two flips into blissful dance mode, though with a still-powerful edge. "Not in Love," a cover of a song by Platinum Blonde, is super-fun robomusic that could nearly pass for a marginally more twisted variation on Goldfrapp. "Pap Smear" aims equally for four-on-the-floor, albeit in a more eccentric disguise. It is here that, for all the shades of avant garde and designed difficulty, Crystal Castles begin to sound most like a conventional pop group -- and to boot, an excellent one with ideas to apply and songs to share. But for today, their hearts thankfully still lie with the tricky synths, samples, and beats of Side A, which make a welcome return (replete with ominous Rosemary's Baby backing vocals) on the stellar "Intimate."

But I don't mean to overstate the delectable, friendly elements; all of the songs have a self-conscious but sophisticated cloak of darkness and melodrama, all seeming to hint at danger below the surface, as though The Truth is only best delivered when it rides a killer mix. One can't help but recall Depeche Mode, with their much more commercial mixture of cartoonishly bleak themes and cutting-edge electro-pop. But the comparison is limited. Crystal Castles don't forsake chaos on the body of the record; "Doe Deer" is a spirited screamer with a rather impressively obscene level of intentional compression and distortion. (Audiophiles will inevitably shudder at the production credit delivered to Jacknife Lee, notorious for cranking everything as loud as it can go.) "Empathy" feels like it's transmitting from inside your head, especially if you listen on headphones, and primed to implode, causing audaciously involuntary movement, infection, response. It's not just the space in their recordings that Crystal Castles tamper with; it's also their physical relationship with the gentle listener, who is attacked mercilessly on both "Birds" -- which squirts like those quirky fountains that used to be near Spaceship Earth at EPCOT Center and is, to be honest, kind of annoying -- and "Pap Smear," a kitchen-sink pastiche that is too restless to even spend more than a few seconds on a given sonic idea before skipping along, all the while somehow recalling Madonna's "Holiday."

For the most part though, despite its seeming illusions to the contrary, much of this effort is an immediate pleasure. The difference between Crystal Castles and any number of semi-electronica outfits that could easily be wrestling with and even conquering ideas of the same variety is in the age-old rock & roll formula of the dynamic frontperson. Alice Glass has personality, depth, anger, and nuance. She makes this band worth following, and the conflicted-pleasure wizard Ethan Kath has made one hell of a great album of beautiful, uncompromising modern dance music around her.

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