I first saw Crystal Castles live in 2007, and after the show a friend described the music as “nihilist hipster shit.” I disagreed with him, but I realized the assessment was not entirely unfair. Almost three years later, what’s interesting to think about is how my friend’s reaction might have been different if Alice Glass were a man, say, or if Ethan Kath were producing the same notes and melodies but playing a guitar instead of huddling behind a bank of electronics. Change those qualities and consider how friends and detractors might have recieved all of the controversy Crystal Castles has stirred up over the past two years.
Perhaps more people would’ve given the duo a pass if they’d thought of Crystal Castles as a punk act, as that would’ve been a little more in fitting with canceling shows, stealing artwork and just generally making folks mad. But isn’t Crystal Castles a “punk” act? A great deal of Glass and Kath’s music is abrasive, angular machine-gun bursts; they give few interviews and not a great deal about their personal lives is known to the public; their live presence is hectic and insouciant; singer Glass is alternately bratty and distant. They don’t play guitars, but don’t those qualities embody the ethos of what we consider to be punk?
If I’ve convinced you, forget it, because Crystal Castles has relaxed half of that on its second self-titled record. (An attempt to get people to draw awkward comparisons to Led Zeppelin, perhaps?) The band remains inevitably recognizable, and a few songs still have the duo’s trademark sturm und drang, but Glass and Kath have calmed down considerably. Glass is more open — though I bet she’s still as unruly as ever on stage — and she even shows signs of a heartbeat. Kath throws away the role of “silent instrumentalist” to offer a heavily distorted vocal for a cover of Platinum Blonde’s “Not In Love.”
Still, one song on this is album called “Pap Smear,” and raucous live favorite “Baptism” is a standout. But Glass’s lyrics on second single “Celestica” — “When it’s cold outside hold me/ Don’t hold me” — alone seem like enough of an indication that Crystal Castles has moved away from its implacable, turbulent past.
Paradoxically, this move toward personality better serves one of the strongest elements of Crystal Castles’ music: darkness. The group’s bleak, sinister quality has always been one of its best assets, and in humanizing themselves, even in the record’s shinier latter half, the musicians take on a slightly stronger shadow. The faces they let us see, it turns out, are sadder than they’d previously let on.