Crystal Castles: Exclusive Track-By-Track Preview Of Crystal Castles' New LP
, April 13th, 2010 09:04
Crystal Castles follow their debut Crystal Castles with second album, er, Crystal Castles. Emily Bick discovers a new, darker sound
This new Crystal Castles record. Wow. The last one, Crystal Castles, was abrasive and obnoxious: papercuts from tinsel, the taste of tinfoil against your molars, black ice snowballs lobbed at your hungover skull. It was fast and loud and screamy and synthetic, sarky and bratty and harsh. It was very good too. But you can only really be good like that once. This one is, unsurprisingly, more subtle. It's bitter and it keeps.
Keep in mind that I've only heard it once, in a dark, bare basement. This was before it had a name or a lyric sheet, or any images except for the cover of the Doe Deer 12": a girl's (probably singer Alice Glass's) skinny legs and white-tanked torso; she's in a room with nothing else but a mattress and some cigarettes.
It wasn't quite sensory deprivation (kind PR folks had laid on a spread of sandwiches, fruit and beverages) but afterwards I was kicked outside, moleblinking off into the afternoon, disoriented enough to lose my bike keys for a second. It twisted something. Four days later, I'm still a bit uncomfortable. Crystal Castles: they know what they're doing.
This starts off with a kick drum driving through backward loops of ascending scree. It sounds like reversed tape loops of dolphins rubbing up against latex balloons, while listening to Skinny Puppy at a party in the Black Lodge. Not bad, but I'm worrying if this means Crystal Castles are jumping on the Paw Tracks bandwagon—lazily trading glitch for melt. (The answer to this turns out to be yes and no. You'll see; keep reading.)
A dancefloor contender. The vocals sound a bit like Ladytron, a bit Gaga, but dropped down a mine. It's heavy on the low end, but the way this blends with the tinkling top line synths recalls Tiga's 'Shoes'. You will hear this one in Urban Outfitters or H & M by the end of the summer, guaranteed.
We're back to skronk and screech: this is sonic assault, wall of scream, Melt Banana territory. Truth be told, I'd come in half-dreading a whole album of this: affectless noise, bored noise, boring noise. I've heard a lot of noise in my day and unless there's something else to it, my thoughts are, "Well, you're loud now but just wait, time, and tinnitus, will get you too."
What saves this from tedium is just how well-calibrated the screams and scrapes are; together they sound like some human-metal hybrid, twisted beyond recognition, and a keyboard that's tweaked enough to sound like some strangulated human trying to escape all things digital. It's all really uncomfortable, and then there are some pristine geometric basslines all twisting around each other like Kraftwerk clockwork, mocking: Ooh, burn!
Popcorn-synths bleep bleep over operatic keyed arpeggios and scuzz bass. The vocals sound like they're not coming from the bottom of a mine, but somewhere way deeper—maybe Cthulu's clubhouse. Still, by this point I'm not sure where all this is heading.
'Year of Silence'
And now the album turns. The bass drum synchs with some 8-bit racing game's dying motor wheel drone; there are about five fighting layers of percussion; is Alice singing in German? No matter, this aches with a Moroderish loop that repeats and repeats an off-key take on the intro to 'Heart of Glass'. To be crude about it, it's like endless dry humping, frustrating to the point of chafing.
Before this song, you could almost be convinced that this Crystal Castles record was like the one that came before it, with some new embellishments—but it's not. It's not just angry or aggressive; it's mournful and punishing. The nostalgia for musical forms this album wreaks its vengeance on (Italo Disco, AOR polish and glide, FM cruisin', even goth bombast and noise), comes from the same place as all those YouTube compilations of cat massage ladies in jewelled sweaters and 80s video daters with their perms and moustaches and star dissolves. Some kinds of nostalgic listening are not so different. Their strangenesses are familiar in their stylisation and distant enough to be made tame. (Or consider: watching those YouTube videos is no protection against that moment of truth that, eventually, comes for everyone in the American Apparel changing rooms, under their stark fluorescent lights.) Holding on to the past will not stop time, it will cast decay into sharper relief. Crystal Castles show no mercy as they dissect and examine.
The bass drum heart drops a bit here, and this track fills with clean synth percussion, like a Trans Am song. Finally, this breaks down, and we ride it out on a crest of scurf and squall. One of the few decipherable vocal lines calls out, "you must have been searching…" and the middle 8 jumps with plucked rubber synth burps like cartoon burps of fear, disruptor punches to the throat.
Glide, then ZZZZtTTTTT! Keyboard swoop of DOOM! It's not far off Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 'Heads will roll' with the histrionic goth keyboard thunderslices, but then the hissing and scuzzling white noise chaos dominates the goth keyboards, which no longer seem so heroic and charging or something.
This record is all about dismantling whatever devices specific types of songs use to claw their magic into you. And yes, Crystal Castles's Ethan Kath, like YYY's Nick Zinner, bought up almost every analogue synth on the market over the last two years; maybe for Kath using up these particular sounds is a personal exorcism. But 'Suffocation', for me, doesn't read so much as pulled-back-curtain reveal as it does a straight-up pisstake. Maybe it works better for people who clutched at this kind of gothy/emo bombast as teenage safety blanket over the last ten years or so, but this song doesn't do much for me; it's an easy target, or I'm outside the target demographic. Probably both.
This starts off like an Ariel Pink outtake with underwater drum pulses, dripping wah and flange effects, before it goes sinister. Part of the melody line sounds like the Quaalude-edged synths of Paul McCartney's 'Wonderful Christmastime' gone over to the dark side. If this album has a concept, it is to take everything sweetly anodyne and give it the Pet Sematary treatment. It's a bit like what Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin did to 'It's My Party' back in 1981—they time-warped, minorised and pitch-melted it with keytars and fog machines--but even that tilted back into du-wop dreaminess that could have soundtracked the TV version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Violent dreams offers no levity; a bassline earthquake rumble builds to dissemble the song's foundations. Some sickly Nintendo quest-game music appears, before vanishing. The thing ends in a mushroom cloud of bass vibrations, then cuts to black.
Heart-attack-speed dark disco with hints of Bach's Tocatta and Fugue, echoes of the chimes and vocal of Nu Shooz' '(I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-)I Can't Wait'. The second half of this album really paints hedonism as mourning: You can't really dance to this (it's too fast) but you can remember each element as it recedes, knowing you can never catch up. Recordings are forever; bodies that remember fall apart.
This sounds like tazer pong, paintball splats, car thump over roadkill. There are drills whizzing, arcade helicopters. There are squelchy sounds like stretched, fishy latex; bras snapped through a blob of KY; greasy fingersqueak across a spot-popped mirror. All of these things, in nature, are gross, but human and therefore tolerable; transmuted into sound, they aren't. This song reminds me of a perfume I smelled once that was meant to smell of factories and plastic—but because it was those synthetics synthesized, it was just too much and I got a solvent headache. There were apocryphal stories of people getting nosebleeds from smelling it. I'm not surprised. I get the same visceral quease from passing redecorated McDonalds, with their dark green, orange and lime colour scheme and alien chairs like some Phillipe Starck abortion. Putting all that into song form is some achievement.
And after that, we're back with Italo sheen, glittery keyboards, middle-speed glitch, tape failure, every manipulation on show; the bass-drum curled in the centre like a twitching salt-choked snail. This record is just cruel.
Not in Love
Ok, it could be my imagination, but this starts off with the same chords of the 10cc classic. Imagine that, but filtered through 'Sunglasses at Night' (either version) and then with the chorus ripped out so there's no resolution! Actually, none of these songs resolve, If there's a structure, it's like verse/noise/verse/ noise/ verse/noise/more grating noise/end. I don't know if there's a North American influence here: Crystal Castles are from Toronto, a city surrounded by coils of highway. Flying in, you see a neon-lit top view of streets like watch guts. Imagine growing up driving around that, aspiring to drive around that. Imagine being surrounded by drivetime classic rock, no matter what.
By yanking the chorus and resolution, this loses its adolescent thrust: The drive to go somewhere becomes the endless commute. And drivetime classics that soundtracked that teenaged sense of looking for something are designed to bring pleasant memories (I was looking for something once, ha ha, what fun) in the adult worker. But by destroying the song stricture, that mechanism is disabled, and Crystal Castles' 'Not in Love' shifts towards discomfort, disillusion, despair.
Of course it's nothing of the kind. It is dissolution: wind, tyres, roaring, tinkling bells, a car spinning out, a white noise abrasion. Unless the closest you can get to another human being or your own sick self is to strip away every aesthetic impulse until only repetition and decay (the failure of repetition, the second law of thermodynamics) remain.
I Am Made Of Chalk
This one's all crunchy organic, but not necessarily uplifting. It starts up and skips, then starts again, skips, wash, skip, repeat. But that's kind of great; this repetition is so annoying, after all of the neutered nostalgic longing and deprogramming of that longing of the past hour, that it might piss a listener off enough to take some kind of action, but what?
Then there's fear: because what if there is nothing new left either, nowhere left to go, and the future brings a kind of deadening? If getting older brings a sort of brittle calcification (heh) of the soul that can be masked by attachment to pop-cultural artefacts, but not cured? This album is aggressively unpleasant but maybe also moral; maybe it's a slap round the senses. And maybe answers are too much to ask for. (Or maybe a refusal to offer answers keeps a foot in synthetic noisenik adolescence; maybe Crystal Castles' next album will go further. And anyway, to suggest a lack of cultural ground to progress to seems unnecessarily vicious, why bother making this record at all if there's nothing to be done?)
At the playback, there was a second sitting; the second batch of journos were eating their sandwiches and waiting their turn when one of the PR guys turned this song off, halfway through. 'It just keeps on going like that,' he said. Quite. We went home.
Crystal Castles Crystal Castles is out on Fiction on June 7th. For a full list of Crystal Castle's forthcoming rather epic tour and summer festival appearances, visit their mySpace page