The duo of vocalist Alice Glass and producer Ethan Kath became Crystal Castles in 2004 when Kath (at the time a solo musician) asked Glass to provide vocals for a collection of instrumental tracks. He was looking for the ‘missing ingredient’ and appeared to find it when a secret recording session turned into the debut single ‘Alice Practice‘. The band’s debut is an astonishing mix of vibrant 8-bit computer electronica, punk and dance that sounds like it was formed within the twisted insides of a 1980 Pac-man arcade machine. And now, following the band’s diverse eponymous debut, the second album has, imaginatively, the same name. It is equally diverse but not in a good way.
As you might expect, when Crystal Castles (II) is good, its very good. And this immediately shows a promising progression. Gone are the thumping drums, the spiky keys and the distorted howling vocals and in comes soft, gliding serenity and Glass actually attempting to sing, even though for the most part you can’t hear her clearly - but not because the feedback is too thick but due to the marshmallow production. The early highlight is undoubtedly Celestica and a great example of the band’s new found shimmering pop sound. Glass delivers a perfect vocal melody and explosive choruses while Kath adds some harder edges. But with the exception of some curious squeaks and bleeps, the song mostly stays the right side of listenable. The effect is not too far from Dubstar in their prime. In almost the same way, but with added vocoder, Suffocation uses the same approach, never threatening to descend into noise and chaos. It takes a while to get going but Empathy is equally vibrant, a constant juxtaposition of pulsing beats, gliding strings and soft vocals.
The flip side of all this is the big problem with Crystal Castles (II). Opener Fainting Spells is designed to put off the casual listener. As a manic mix of screaming vocals, razor-edged keyboards and disjointed drums, even Trent Reznor would struggle to justify this to kick off a new album. Likewise Doe Deer (at just over a minute and a half and laughingly released as a 12 inch single), is just as awful. What makes this even more horrible is a great guitar riff throughout the nonsense. Continuing the pain, the vocals on Baptism drag the whole thing back to the bad old days, and Birds is ruined by some absurd electronic blips. Intimate is okay for two minutes forty seconds and then for some reason it all gets stuck in a seemingly endless barrage of noise. Then Crystal Castles (II) closes as it began, with I Am Made Of Chalk - a truly agonising random mess.
But it is the middle ground that lifts the quality of the rest. The Jónsi (Sigur Rós) sampled Year Of Silence is inspired, Violent Dreams is oddly downbeat and Vietnam, also with vocals provided by Stina Nordenstam is wonderfully inoffensive. The upbeat Pap Smear gives a late lift as does the jolly Not In Love, with an even more bizarre robotic vocal production and stadium-esque finale.
Sometimes a band is its own worst enemy. Whether Glass is reluctant to let go of her punk roots or Crystal Castles (II) is the sign of a band heading slowly (and reluctantly) in a new, more stable, direction is open for debate but the fact remains: the album suffers from several stupendous (mis-)judgement calls. Given that there is a wealth of material and the good trying to make up for the bad, Crystal Castles should not be criticised for lapsing back to the sound that made the band’s early sound and debut release such an engaging prospect. But such is the gap between the tuneful and the tuneless that it doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the right approach - even if this means compromising style for substance. Crystal Castles really needs to make this distinction.
-- CS (for In One Ear)