It often seems that modern music is strictly divided into two categories. There is music for surface enjoyment, like dancing and partying; then, there is music rife with meaning, meant to elicit an emotional response. And, the general rule continues, music nowadays is divided along genre lines: there is pop music, dance music, electronic music; then, there is indie music, folk, avant-garde. Electronic music especially is too often defined by its vapidity; it serves its purpose through its mindlessness.
That is, of course, a consummately untrue statement, and none proves that so definitely as Crystal Castles. In their third album, “Crystal Castles,” singer Alice Glass and producer Ethan Kath use tools that frequently power shallow dance songs to instead craft powerful emotional landscapes. Unfortunately, however, Crystal Castles do ultimately fall into the trap of their genre: while a few tracks are extraordinarily moving, others lack emotional power and seemingly blend together in their instrumentation and structure. Though these tracks are still danceable, for a duo as nuanced as Crystal Castles they are failures.
The opening track, “Plague,” seems at first quite strong. Its powerful, driven choruses, bolstered by the repeated declaration “I am the plague,” provide the album with its initial momentum; the more subdued bass-drum beat on the verses allow Glass’ shrieking vocals and lyrics to come through distinctly and lend a haunting quality promised by an album with track titles like “Wrath of God,” “Pale Flesh,” and “Child I Will Hurt You.” Whatever meaning “Plague” is able to convey, however, is rendered far less potent when its eerie qualities continue rather unbroken into the next track, “Kerosene.” The synthesizers and drums attack in the same stuttering, aggressive pattern, and the breathy vocals dominate the verses in both tracks.
The similar qualities of these two tracks would not necessarily be fatal if the pattern ended there. Yet “Wrath of God” continues to uphold the status quo of “Kerosene” and “Plague.” The track alternates between the same driven choruses and subdued interludes, and it seems to reuse the distorted, high-pitched vocal squiggles of “Kerosene.” The ultimate result is an emotional plateau.
Fortunately, the album is not without distinct successes. The most particular of these is “Sad Eyes,” paradoxically one of the most upbeat songs on the album. What is particularly impressive about “Sad Eyes” is that despite its upbeat nature it still manages to convey a distinct sense of melancholy. The rapid, consistent beat forms the backdrop to a clear, minor key synth motif and Glass’s emotive voice. “Sad Eyes” succeeds in conveying a deep sadness and single-handedly redeems the failure of the album’s beginning.
“Crystal Castles” also shines as a whole in some respects, particularly through the way the duo welds beautiful lyrics and vocal distortion together in order to increase the songs’ emotional impact. The lyrics to “Transgender” are often difficult to discern, but Glass’s sensual delivery, combined with Kath’s production tricks, make them potent and enjoyable. In lines like, “Will you ever preserve / Will you ever exhume / Will you watch petals shed from flowers in bloom,” Glass plays skillfully with the sound of the words themselves. This technique is arguably one of the greatest strengths of the album.
Crystal Castles is a group in an inherently difficult position: they are stylistically very much electronic, yet their music consistently transcends the stereotypical notion of genre. Thus, when they produce stereotypical electronic music, they have failed. Unfortunately, for a significant portion of their new album, Crystal Castles do just that: while the first few tracks on the album are catchy, they lack the extra emotional dimension that is so crucial to their success. The album, however, is by no means an unmitigated failure: the successes are truly successes and demonstrate what electronic music may accomplish.