The term “electronic music” has become such an ambiguous way to describe the genre of music nowadays. Sound engineers have come a long way ever since they began playing with tape recorders back in the ’50s and synthesizers years later. As the technology advanced, the narrow genre of electronic expanded into an umbrella of various others.
Ontario-born duo Crystal Castles makes for a fine example of where electronic musicians are at today. With samples from the Nordic-godlike lead vocalist of Sigur Rós, elements of noise rock, chaotic vocal manipulations, and much more weirdness to discover, electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk would be more than pleased with the variety of sounds on Crystal Castles (II).
When you get down to the heart of Crystal Castles’ music, it is without question intended for the dance floor. When you detect some tranquility in the material, there is an even stronger force of energy by its side. When the energy becomes too much to take in, like on the alarming trance number “Empathy”, Alice Glass’ ethereal vocals bode well for balance. The vocal edits heard towards the end of the song are strongly reminiscent of work from Prefuse 73 (“Oh Linda You Lit Up My Life…”), and that isn’t a bad thing. It is most certainly the apex of the track, as it meshes well with the layered beats from the drum machine and the echoic off-kilter male vocals combined.
There’s plenty of darkness that comes through in a majority of the 14 tracks, especially when the band is at its most experimental. Using glitches of what sounds like a tape recording of violent fights or for imaginative purposes, treacherous murder, the shrills and wails behind the compressed drum beats shake up the scene to scare off the kids. “I Am Made of Chalk” is the last track of the bunch, and it sounds like aliens abducting from above. The song begins with these spiraling-upward sounds that work together as an army, pushing each other to make the greatest impression. They make their sounds. In other words, it’s almost like a brutal war between manic robots that slowly dissipate as the song progresses. They fight back, but lose as the synthesizer takes control by song’s end. One recognizable track featured on the album is “Year of Silence”, which takes samples from the Sigur Ros song “Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur (In Me a Lunatic Sings)”. Originally an orchestral bright pop song, the contorted Icelandic lyrics fit a gloomier mood presented by industrial soundscapes.
While some tracks muddle the four-beat pop standard through radical slow-downs and speed-ups and other sporadic behavior, other parts of Crystal Castles (II) are dulling and fail to inspire much. “Celestica” is a pretty formulaic dance number, and Glass is at her lamest and most withdrawn. Things pick up for her, however, on the glamorous and incredibly fervor-filled track “Pap Smear”, as she channels an attitude that parallels Eleanor Jackson (of La Roux). There’s a lustiness to her voice that lives up to the decadence of this track quite well. But that’s one example that’s far too few. In retrospect, the duo’s effort is admirable when it shows its ambition, but sometimes even when all of music’s technology is at arm’s reach, originality can be a hard thing to come by.