Alice Glass knows how to effing party. In almost all of her photos, she’s seen with a cig disheveled between her fingers, her eye frequently dazed in the middle of her favorite eye shadow – if not hell-bent on putting out a fiery live show, sometimes to the point of literally crawling back on stage after crowd surfing – all with a fairly down-to-earth love of boozing and getting a regular workout via hard partying. She does what she wants, and really you couldn’t ask for much more. Crystal Castles is the brainchild of Glass and Ethan Kath, under which they bring you their excellent brand of electronic dance music.
At first, the Crystal Castles name was synonymous with songs like “Alice Practice”, which was the sonic equivalent of Glass breathing fire into the mic after a Nintendo Entertainment System sabotaged their set and improvising accordingly. It sounded pretty cool, but unfortunately the album it was featured on – self-titled Crystal Castles – hardly offered much besides what the above trite metaphor describes, and suffered from relying on a paper-thin gimmick that got stale even before the album was over. Their sophomore self-titled album, craftily-titled Crystal Castles II, fixed virtually everything, and establishing their sound into what it is today – which is, as you may have guessed, is pretty good.
Redefining their sound in almost every way, CCII gives the 8-bit electroclash of their debut a much-needed colorization by means of improved songwriting skills. Though the noise elements that pervaded the original Crystal Castles still show their faces here, there’s moreso a newfound appreciation for atmosphere and hazy electronics that upgrades their brand immensely. Thusly, the emotional spectrum has widened up quite a bit as well. Glass, who used to shout a majority of the time, now has a taste for soft, dreary vocals, and they’re applied to the music in a way that creates a dream-pop-meets-new-rave sound. Probably most impressive of all is how the duo has stepped away from the stagnant and drainingly-repetitive nature of their debut to craft an album that has drastically more variety between each song, which is undoubtedly thanks to the bigger scope of the music.
Though ideal for a dance setting, CCII holds a consistently somber tone, giving the listener room to take a drag off its moodier sensibilities. “Violent Dreams” is an example of the duo going almost purely atmospheric, discarding the beats and supplementing them with murky, low-key synths and grotesque vocal samples reciting a vague memory of a friend Chrissie and her getting pulled out of a burning car. This is actually a sample from Stina Nordestam’s “A Walk in the Park”, which is also sampled on the more aggressive follow-up “Vietnam”, albeit in an even more chopped-up manner. Similarly, they sample Sigur Ros on “Year of Silence” – one of my favorite tracks because of how raunchy the lyrics can be interpreted from their original “hopelandic” (read: intentional nonsense) state. Depending on which version of the album you get, you might get one of two versions of “Not In Love”. One of them features The Cure’s Robert Smith, has a bigger chorus, and a more gothic tone. The other version, which I believe is what comes on earlier pressings of the album, lacks Smith’s contribution and has a totally different shade of vocals, but in my opinion is the weaker version of the song. I’d wager it’s more a matter of preference than anything, but Smith’s appearance does give the album that much more memorability.
I always found “Crystal Castles” to be an excellent name for the duo, because their aesthetic is, indeed, crystalline and echoing, like some kind of ethereal crooning taking place in a large, embellished chamber, and it’s all done with a nonchalance to gracefulness. As it turns out, Crystal Castles can make a melodic, icy dance track like “Celestica” make perfect sense between a pair of screeching, harsh noise tracks, which is likely a result of their improved songwriting. Sure, it’s jarring when you hear it for the first time, but there’s a good reason it’s comfortably stationed at the start of the album – this is what Crystal Castles is all about, and they’re here to show you the newfound mastery they have over their seemingly clashing ideas. CCII works because in spite of itself, it brings together its pallet of ideas quite well, while only occasionally fumbling with consistency.