Christopher Nolan summarized the arc of his Dark Knight franchise as “Fear. Chaos. Pain.” Crystal Castles’ latest self-titled album, standing on its own, can boast a similar delineation. The group has always been a fervent act, comprised of challenging disharmonies, soaring electronic melody, and a gutter punk ethos. But III finds them switching away from a rousing “fuck you” to a desolate “we’re fucked.”
There’s a malignant theme of oppression that pulses throughout. A swelling bass thumps eardrums like the cannonade of invaders in knee-high black boots. Aggressive keyboards screech with high-notes and dizzying electric hooks. And when both are coupled with Alice Glass’ trapped-in-the-well-of-a-serial-killer vocals, they construct an agoraphobic glut of terrible humanity that squeezes listeners to a fevered breaking point. The angst is inescapable, heart-racing, and brain-taxing. It’s the hellacious techno-static soundtrack of crushing annihilation — and yet, one still wants to dance to it.
Crystal Castles (I) found a spirited young Glass cavorting in a glowing red sea of video game anger on cuts like “Alice Practice” and “xxcuzx me”. II arrived polished and more pop-friendly with tracks like “Not in Love” and “Celestica” showcasing Ethan Kath’s growing comfort and maturity as a studio composer, as well as the tranquil side of the oft-frenzied Glass. III, on the other hand, is gorged with totalitarian suffering and anxiety.
“Sad Eyes” and “Wrath of God” spin with tension, like a skating rink hot-glued to the mouth of madness, while the softness of “Affection” and “Transgender” find themselves well positioned to provide a refractory breather before the mayhem resumes. This ebb and flow is a credit to Kath’s skill as an arranger. It keeps the edges from bleeding too deep into one another. But it also allows a wider range of emotional peaks and valleys, which add significant impact to a record replete with crescendos and claustrophobia.
Album opener “Plague” is a disquieting journey that seizes as if the walls of sound are closing in and covered with filthy germs. Glass, as the heroine in danger, channels patient zero and spreads the world’s injustice to everything she touches. She’s both victim and perpetrator; vigilante and villain. The band plays with this dichotomy as Glass’ screams of terror become self-effacing taunts and even threats that bellow “I am the plague”. The lyrical poetry comes not just from the sometimes indistinct words but from the dark emotions and pounding instrumentation that bolster the semantic choices. For instance, Glass’ lamentations about “Infants in infantry” is a coy play on syllables that doesn’t deliver much impact on its own. But thanks to Kath’s looped distortions and gritty manipulations, the raw thought comes across as both biting and quite harsh.
This acrid motif of affliction and suffering is on full display in the fan-made, band-adopted music video for “Plague”. Its scenes are lifted from the 1981 French film, Possession, which follows a young wife who goes mad in a subway tube and thrashes about in an unnerving manner. This poor woman’s expressions and movements, much akin to Glass’ stage presence, are an erratic storm of limbs and agony that lie beyond the realm of self control. She’s helpless in her own flesh, ensnared within a sinister existence by dictatorial forces.
Producer and group founder Kath was keen on manufacturing a novel experience by building a different kind of noise than what’s been heard on the previous two albums. The band posted a statement explaining their approach: “Any keyboards and pedals used on I or II were traded for different keyboards and pedals so that there would be a new palette of sounds to work with.” This instrumental controlled burn — augmented by a single take, computer-free recording on actual tape — gives the session a stark feel. III is less playful than the duo’s previous couple of offerings, but it’s thematic mood is much tighter and more fully realized.
The album’s cover recalls the PietÃ , depicting a veiled, cloaked woman holding the pale, limp body of a frail man. Only here, rather than a loving albeit mournful embrace, the woman’s hands are covered by latex surgical gloves, preventing any actual skin on skin contact from taking place. A track like “Affection” further teases out this woeful disconnect from life and empathy. Its tenderness hints at mercy, but Glass shatters any waning chance for emotional sanctuary as she whispers, “Catch a moth, hold it in my hand, crush it casually.” This brand of autocratic doom and false hope is expected from a Godspeed You! Black Emperor spoken-word intro rather than the relatively up-tempo Crystal Castles. Though, Glass’ reminder that “We drown in pneumonia, not rivers and streams” is a bleak admonition that while outside forces coalesce and exert pressure, it’s the reactionary inner turmoil that ultimately asphyxiates a person’s true nature.
Essential Tracks: “Affection”, “Plague”, and “Wrath of God”
Feature artwork by Mike Zell: