Before they take the stage around which some hundreds of people now crowd, Crystal Castles force their audience to look up at a photograph of a veiled Yemeni woman cradling her injured, naked son. Huge and luminous, the image has been stripped of its context, outlined like a logo in a void. It leers over throngs of anxious teenagers. It glows blacklight purple.
The same chilling image of primal comfort in the wake of deep human horror graces the cover of Crystal Castles’ third record. The electro-punk duo brandish the photo like the Rolling Stones used to waggle their tongue. It’s hard not to think of Banksy, even Warhol, or any number of artists who have packaged global tragedy into Western pop art. It’s hard not to consider the implication that even while we’re grabbing at Alice Glass’s knees at her shows or losing ourselves in her voice between our headphones at home, unimaginable terrors roil overseas.
While in the past Crystal Castles have never shied from deliberate ugliness, their third LP dives deeper into the dark parts of the earth from which music usually helps to distract. Re-rendering that image of Fatima al-Qaws and her son Zayed doesn’t divest it of its horror; it reminds us that the same horror is a flagstone on which our way of living depends. Think of city police punching teenage girls full-on in the face. Think of the people who made your computer. Think of unmanned drone strikes in the Middle East.
In its efforts to capture what Alice Glass and Ethan Kath now perceive to be a very real dystopia, (III) matures the abrasive electronic experiments that populated both I and II. Abandoning computers and digital equipment in their production, the Canadian duo also severed themselves from any world outside the one they made themselves. There are no more samples, no covers, no guest vocalists on (III). It is whole, undiluted Crystal Castles–and it’s as haunting and raw as might be imagined.
Vanished are the bratty teenage anti-melodies of “Courtship Dating” and the mutant punk squalls of “Doe Deer.” Glass’s banshee wails still dodge Kath’s flying daggers, but this time they arc in the shape of whole and satisfying melodies. Sweet bell strokes puncture walls of feedback as the record oscillates between fear and subtle relief. Lyrics mostly obscure themselves inside soft sheets of noise, but when they emerge as language, they’re piercing: “I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen.” “I will always let you down.”
The analog softens everything, melting the icy architecture of Kath’s signature beats. He’s still bending circuits, but we no longer feel like we’re trapped inside a perverse arcade game. Dredging up patterns from the shadows of long-closed rave halls, Kath distorts vintage–almost predictable–dance formations to build fresh nightmares. For a band that has long favored the “punk” label over the baggage associated with “dance,” it seems that Crystal Castles have finally settled down with their electronic ancestry.
But more importantly, it feels as though the duo have synchronized with each other more deeply than ever. By opting not to sample vocalists other than Glass, Crystal Castles have created their most consistent record to date. Glass’s mangled language flits around “Kerosene,” soars behind mechanical whines on “Mercenary,” howls barbed protests on “Wrath of God.” Her voice slithers around like a lost metallic amoeba on “Violent Youth,” folds up like ghost lace on indelible slow-burn closer “Child, I Will Hurt You.” If tracks like “Celestica” and “Baptism” showcased the end points of Glass’s range, songs on (III) put every point in between on full display. And rather than skittering across the surface of Kath’s background textures, Glass’s vocals are now inextricably woven into the fabric of his work.
While Crystal Castles might have debuted from a cold alien vantage, they’ve finally sunk deeply into the ground. (III) is far and above the most human of the band’s three records. It’s also the first Crystal Castles release that feels like it might break if you stepped on it. By moving beyond chilly aggression and bratty posturing, (III) exposes fully the vulnerability that wore through at key points on II. It draws the best, most affecting moments up from their sophomore release and grows a new world around them.
Moving past teenage illusions of invincibility to a place where the horrors of the world become real is a process few people complete, let alone bands. Crystal Castles have grown tremendously since scrapping together those first infamous demos. This latest chapter surges forth newly whole, cohesive and affecting. Melodically and texturally taut, (III) whips around the only kind of emotion that adequately responds to this uncertain world. It’s an invisibly political record–and an absolutely necessary one.