There is an image on the cover of the new Crystal Castles album of a woman from Yemen holding her tear-gassed son in her arms after a demonstration. It is haunting and perplexing, as the image itself appears to be cut away from its original background, layered on top of a stark, dark, barren void. An act of love, an act of desperation in a blacked out world. While the album itself bears no official tile other than the roman numeral III to indicate its order among their self-titled cannon, the cover art serves as a stronger message than any name they could have possibly come up with would.
Now, if the name Crystal Castles conjures sounds of shredded electronics screaming in pain and gasping for life over top propulsive dance beats, you’re not alone. Known as purveyors of paint-peeling electro-noise, Crystal Castles’ Ethan Kath and Alice Glass have often been overlooked as expert synthpop masters. Long one of my favourite tracks of the past 10 years, “Vanished” from I, is a the kind of precise pop perfection that would make New Order envious, and the Platinum Blonde cover “Not In Love” from II (later re-recorded as a collaboration with The Cure’s Robert Smith) further showcased not only their ability, but willingness to prove there’s more to this duo than cacophonic crashes of sound masquerading as album tracks.
What III does so amazingly well is weld the duo’s industrialized heart of darkness to melodiousness and humanity. More so than on any of their previous records, the beating heart of Crystal Castles is clearly evident under the music’s synthetic coatings. Yes, there’s still “Insulin” to contend with, the album’s midway ride of sonic terror, but it’s no where near as jarring, or memorable, as it might have once been. Instead, what you’ll take away from this record is the more affecting moments like “Wrath of God” and “Child I Will Hurt You”, harrowing in their own right, but magnificently rendered.
Glass has stated that oppression is a major theme of III, and though lyrically it still may difficult to decipher that, emotionally and musically, this is clearly the sound of a band fighting back, whether against tyrannical regimes, cynical music journalists, or their own self-doubt and self-perception. Like the cover image, Kath and Glass have cut the heart of their music away from the clutter and noise that once surrounded it, setting it against a clean, simple backdrop. Its humanity–beautiful and ugly all at the same time–becomes the focus. And that’s very becoming of them.
Crystal Castles (III) is available now from Last Gang.
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