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Crystal Castles, ‘(III)’ (Casablanca/Republic/Fiction)

Crystal Castles
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: November 08, 2012
Label: Casablanca/Republic/Fiction

Soon after posting their first soundcheck in 2005, rapturous press, chart hits, and an international rep as a fearsome live act all swiftly snowballed for the Toronto-bred chiptune duo who’d been so busy touring and recording that they hadn’t bothered to have actual homes. Then, in late 2010, the pair released a version of “Not in Love,” turning Platinum Blonde’s 1983 new-wave oldie (rightly unknown beyond Canada) into an ultra-dramatic gothic disco masterstroke via a bravura guest vocal by the Cure’s Robert Smith. This, Smith’s most pop-tacular achievement since 1992’s “Friday I’m in Love,” also made the unintended point that Crystal Castles would be far more compelling — in the studio, at least — if frontwoman Alice Glass wasn’t always on the mic.

But it’s not as if she’s replaceable onstage. In a genre defined by homely DJ dudes whose choreography rarely evolves beyond the occasional pumped fist, someone who holds herself like a proper rock star — not only crowd-surfing, but also pummeling any guy who touches her inappropriately — is a revelation. “I’ve never punched anyone who didn’t deserve it,” she declared on a recent NME cover.

That’s debatable, but what’s certain is that her aggression makes Crystal Castles accessible to indie rockers more at ease with badass (and just plain bad) vibes than with EDM’s utopianism. Their S&M imagery may be subtler and far more serious than, say, Lords of Acid’s, but it’s still there in every eye-piercing strobe and fuck-you riff. From their interviews to their cover art, Glass and keyboardist/producer Ethan Kath aim to present themselves as the planet’s darkest dance band, one without calculation, ambition, or commerciality.

Indeed, they bring the noise, but what makes them more than Atari Teenage Riot’s second coming is Kath’s command of the European pop and disco conventions ingrained in eastern Canadian culture. Maybe he learned what he needed to know about ABBA, Donna Summer, Françoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg, and Ennio Morricone through New Order (and, quite likely, Chris & Cosey), but in any event, it’s all there in his minor-key melodies, octave-jumping bass lines, four-to-the-floor drum programming, and symphonic instrumental harmonies that imply emotional intimacies as much as Glass’s words deny them. No one writes something as delicately melancholy as “Celestica” without having felt love and its loss, and knowing how to articulate both. And even if it’s sequenced on 2010’s Crystal Castles right before their most abrasive cut, “Doe Deer,” that song nevertheless betrays a longing for connection, an appreciation of beauty, and an understanding of order and balance in the way it gently rises, falls, and settles back into place. No matter how the duo and their complicit, hype-crazed British press backers may mutually deny it, Crystal Castles aren’t all “punk” and anarchy; there’s plenty of pleasure amid their pain.

Or, at least, there was. The third record titled Crystal Castles is considerably less inviting and less extreme than its eponymous predecessors. There’s more electro syncopation and fewer, fainter disco thumps, which would be fine if Kath’s Timbaland was as great as his Gaga. Instead, “Kerosene,” “Affection,” and “Pale Flesh” are tentative — not nearly as danceable as “Not in Love,” and never as commanding. Unlike the huge sonic leap between the video-game mutilation of their 2008 debut and the arena-rave clarity of its follow-up, III beats a conflicted retreat. “We wanted the new album to sound like a completely different and new experience,” Kath recently announced, rebutting his NME claim last summer that “There’s no departure. We like how we sound. We don’t wanna change.”

Although the duo insists they’ve ditched their old synths and enforced a “strictly no computers” rule here, Glass’ severely circumscribed singing is more processed, Auto-Tuned, and obscured than ever. It’s also more prominent in the mix. Disembodied by Kath into a ghostly digitized whisper or a shrieking monotone, Glass now emits only an occasionally decipherable word or two in any phrase. You’re more likely to make sense out of the Jar Jar Binks-ian dialogue in Cloud Atlas‘ post-apocalyptic segments than parse any of the death-metal poetry here.

But maybe that’s a good thing, though, as her default bleakness combines cruelty with clunkiness: “I sleep for you when you’re exhausted / Your first born will be accosted” is typical of a lyric sheet that bears little resemblance to what actually comes through the speakers. Crystal Castles are taking serious subject matter, like politically sanctioned fundamentalism and misogyny, and rendering it apolitical or irrelevant by literally reducing it to unintelligible noise — just like they smoothed out the details on a World Press award-winning photo of a Yemenite woman comforting her tear-gassed son for their album cover, turning a highly specific image of compassion into one of generic, Grim Reaper-style doom. This is undoubtedly not their intention, but it’s nevertheless deeply uncool.

Like its predecessors, III serves up synth-etic goth, but its fear of pop means less Siouxsie & the Banshees and more Christian Death. “Sad Eyes” is the sole Eurodisco pounder with a euphoric chorus or hook, but the verses nearly fall apart when the keys pull back and Glass’ chopped and screwy vocals fumble the tune. The rest is more challenging, but also less rewarding; repeated plays don’t reveal any buried substance. Only “Insulin” gets gnarly, but never thrashy; where there was once abandon, now there’s austerity.

It’s as if Kath put more effort into masking Glass’ limitations than exploring what he does best or expanding beyond it. He’s brilliant when juxtaposing rhythmic brutality against euphonious familiarity; but here, he seems exhausted by the former and ashamed of the latter. The last thing Crystal Castles should be is tired.