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Crystal Castles, The Presets, Cut Copy
Crystal Castles, Apocalypso, In Ghost Colours John Doran , May 21st, 2008 00:00

Three neo-electro acts, all hotter than a bedpan in Hades, are in a tense Mexican standoff to decide which has written the album of the summer. John Doran steps in to see whose American Apparel leggings'll be splattered with the mangled brains of the losers come the Autumn.

At the lip of last summer there was a Mexican stand-off between three neo-electro acts as Simian Mobile Disco, Digitalism and Justice all aimed to release the cross-over dance album of the year. And despite stiff competition from the German, Kraftwerk and acid house-obsessed Digitalism it was the Paris based, Christian, Metallica fans Justice who won out, both commercially and critically. This year the same three way race looks set to take place but this time with no clear favourite. Near the entrance of the graveyard, spitting tobacco brown phlegm at the floor with insouciance and glaring despite the blazing sun, are Crystal Castles, a snotty nosed pair of Torontonian tykes who do a terrible job of keeping their almost ubiquitous mugs out of the fashion and music press. (Imagine if Daft Punk did a lot of talking about how they didn’t want their photograph taken but then never actually did anything to stop it.) Standing under the shadow of the gallows are Australians The Presets, another duo who are gaunt and untroubled by the amount of flies buzzing round their faces, hands poised inches from holstered guns. Fellow countrymen Cut Copy look nervous and twitchy, despite there being four of them. Dressed like young chaps heading down to Fistral Beach at Newquay for a cheeky BBQ, they don’t look hardy or hard-faced enough to stand up to CC’s Hoxton friendly, tight trousered, rich kids gone bad assault or The Presets’ bizarre, apocalyptic new romantic make over.

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles

Look beyond their fringes however and you realise that Crystal Castles aren’t so modern. Given that their self-confessed aim is to “annoy people” you can’t help wondering whether they are inept or if they are just another bunch of quite-nice-really kids from good homes wearing the clothing of anti-social rebels as part of a gap year project. For example if they wished to annoy people in putting them through a punishing noise ordeal, then where is the howling machine generated feedback of Cabaret Voltaire, the unrelenting heaviness of Ulterior? If this so-called annoyance is supposed to reveal itself in the use of hyper-aggravating computer game theme music then they’ve lost out to the “mental-core” of An Albatross, the power metal of Dragonforce, the 8 bit horrorshow of Bitshifter. Shit, even Hadouken! are more annoying than this. This is all a bit of a red herring as one of the best tracks here is ’Love and Caring’ which sounds like a gaggle of horny Commodore 64s all shagging in time to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with high pitched beeps and blats that sound like the imaginary noise you start hearing at the tail end of a two day speed binge. In reality this album offers expensive sounding, boutique aggravation for people with expensive haircuts, who don’t want too much in the way of actual disturbance. Really the pretty pop of former singles ’Knights’ and ’Air War’ are more what this duo are about. Alice Glass isn't quite chaotic enough vocal offerings are used to better effect when sampled, inputted, fucked, outputted and quantized over a loop from Death From Above 1979 (as they are on opener ’Untrust Us’). ’Crimewave’ sees them pairing off with LA noise band Health who add their distinctive ribbon-microphoned drum sound to the mix but nothing here really compares to the tracks on offer on the forthcoming HEALTH//DISCO release.

Crystal Castles vs. Health - 'Crimewave'

The Presets - Apocalypso

The Presets - Apocalypso

There must be something in the water in Australia because it is fast becoming another gleaming point on the axis of ace acid along with Paris, Manchester and Detroit. Along with Cut Copy, Midnight Juggernauts and Muscles, The Presets are part of this Antipodean boom in neo-rave culture. Anyone who had only heard earlier singles such as ’I Go Hard, I Go Home’, ’Down Down Down’ and the awesome banger ’Are You The One?’ would be forgiven for not knowing that Julian Hamilton and Kimberly Moyes both graduated in classical music from Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. It would be wrong to say that Apocalypso has been completely informed by the work of the classical canon but they have certainly started flexing their muscles more since the 2006 European release of Beams on Modular.

Things are in a very familiar vein at first as ’Kicking And Screaming’ surfs in on a crest of massive over driven and glitch-y drums before snapping into a Nitzer Ebb-esque darkwave electro bassline. One of the stand-out moments is the epic call to arms ’My People’ which proves that you don’t have to be as dunderheaded as Oasis to write arms aloft inclusive anthems. But it is on ’A New Sky’ that we first see the duo becoming bored with the rigid neo-rave format. This takes the form of complex and tight 10CC like vocal harmonies and by the time you get to single ’This Boy’s In Love’ you realise they have their sights set on further afield than the dance floor. Their acid electro has been shot through with dark veins of moody and slick synth pop and if you imagine early Tears For Fears or Visage making a big room trance anthem (as strange as it sounds) you wouldn’t be far from the mark. The overall effect is glorious and slightly daft " part Justice, part OMD, part Mighty Boosh’s Kraftwerk Orange.

The Presets - 'My People'

Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

Nosing easily into first place, however, is In Ghost Colour by their label mates Cut Copy. Where The Presets have chosen to wear very austere, slightly camp 80s influences Cut Copy have gone straight for the same decade’s pure pop mainline. Instead of paying ritualistic homage to the era in the same (unavoidably) ironic way that Chromeo do, the Melbourne four-piece have turned the magpie tendencies of their last album Bright Like Neon Love into a sumptuous self contained sound that they own themselves. You find the production techniques of 80s pop too tinny and compressed? Then throw in some Beach Boys harmonies. You find the synth pop formula too stiff and undanceable? Then mix in some early 90s Italo house. But this is just the style " the substance is in the sun dappled melodies and dandelion light guitar riffs; the icing sugar house trills and the love struck, pounding-heartbeat drum programming.

Most familiar is ’Hearts On Fire’ which always sounded like it could have been on the sound track to a non-existent John Hughes film about teenage ravers in love. Here it has been given a super-sleek overhaul with a shameless but brilliant early 90s chart-rave edge. ’Feel The Love’ feels like the first day of summer and is redolent of all those groups who sound twice as good when the sun’s out " The Go! Team, The Polyphonic Spree, Ulrich Schnauss and (former label mates) The Avalanches. It even " Christ help me " reminds one of The Lightning Seeds’ finest moment ’Lucky You’. There are still sure fire floor fillers such as ’Out There On The Ice’ but it is when they sing plaintive love songs over chiming guitars and stadium sized synthesizers that they really hit pay dirt, reminding you of everything from New Order to Ultra Vivid Scene. Even early Ride and Slowdive have been thrown seamlessly into the mix on ’So Haunted’. It’s just a shame that it sounds like he’s singing: “I get so horny, I fall in your dreams tonight.” Seriously though: I’ll be surprised if there are many better dance/pop albums than this in 2008 and because it looks like this summer’s weather will be better than last, you’ll want to be in the park listening to this on a ghetto blaster, not stuck in some horrific sweat box dancing to repetitive beats.

Cut Copy - 'Lights & Music'