Thursday, February 13, 2014

Crystal Castles (2008)


(Last Gang)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Why is this collection of itchy earworms -- really a sort of Never Mind the Bollocks in its haphazard arrangement of by-now-familiar singles that'd gained cult popularity in the prior year or two -- so damned satisfying? Partially it's just personal taste, for while there's considerable variance to be found here, it's mostly just drawn out in categories: roughly a third pure atmosphere and beats ("Magic Spells," "1991," "Reckless," "Black Panther"), a third deliberate obnoxiousness ("Alice Practice," "Xxzxcuzx Me," "Knights," "Through the Hosiery"), a third things that are almost songs, or even songs. Hate the sound of bloodcurdling Alice Glass screaming distorted over what sounds like someone dying a terrible death in a game of Berzerk for Atari 2600 and there isn't much chance that this maverick duo's interpretation of abrasively pretty EDM, darkened and curious even at its most inviting, will warm you up much.

Perhaps that's really the point. Crystal Castles, at least early on, made now-familiar avant and pop forms seem dangerous again. When hearing the immediate signature "Alice Practice," its clone "Love and Caring" and the bubbly "Knights," there's this magical sense that you're exposing yourself to something that's bad for you. Glass sounds demented, she sounds bloody and vile, she sounds like an uncontrolled unpredictable being, and the music she and Ethan Kath create has an unresolved, maddeningly uneven nature that's both troubling and sexually provocative. For some listeners, all the screaming in the world can't make it unpleasant. For others, no amount of immediately pleasurable dance music can puncture the sense of theatrical, Gothic rock-star agony. In other words, you might think it's bullshit, and the rest of us will think you're just scared of it but really you're just over it. And that's okay.

It doesn't help that Crystal Castles, the first of so-far-three albums of the same name, is too concerned with the experience of listening to function as a real dance record -- it interrupts itself too much, even on delights like "Untrust Us," the absolutely perfect "Crimewave," and the Kath-led "Vanished." That restlessness is the strongest sense we get of Crystal Castles as a band rather than a studio entity. "Crimewave" is certainly a carefully written and produced piece of work, impossibly catchy yet vague, repetitive but absorbing, and its greatest fascination lies in how it sets up cute keyboard trills, turns them upside down and examines them until they grow foreboding. Evil even when it's pretty, this record's still bad for you! All the unpredictable androgyny, the '80s fantasy porn ("Reckless"), the cold starkness and urgency ("Black Panther"). This is not the bliss of a night out -- it's the paranoia.

Allow as they might for drugginess, though, Glass and Kath can be warm and pleasurable; the wall of vocals on "Air War" breaks down into a strange "Computer Blue" synth-glow, the cheerleading "Courtship Dating" is almost a Yeah Yeah Yeahs chorus, and "Vanished" is no more than three steps away from being the most sinister Jock Jam ever recorded. The two of them thrill to all this unease -- they like that you don't predict they'll close on a Cocteau Twins slowdance or sample, of all things, Drinking Electricity and make it sound like "The Loco Motion." They get a kick out of being divisive and spewing something in the faces of everybody that some will love, that some will hold in contempt. It's a little frightening, or it wants to be, but there's also joy and sensuality in it -- and sometimes this particular scary is where you want a sickeningly late night to be headed.

[SEE ALSO:]
Crystal Castles (2010)
(III) (2012)

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