The cover of Crystal Castles‘ third record (III) features an emotional portrait captured by photojournalist Samuel Aranda, of a woman named Fatima Al-Qaws holding her son Zayed, in Yemen, after he was exposed by tear gas during a street demonstration in the latter quarter of 2011. The disc itself features the same image. Meanwhile, the rest of the image is texturally dark, weary of light colors except for the white text inside the album booklet that, for the first time in Ethan Kath and Alice Glass‘ discography, features the lyrics to their songs.
While the minimalist artwork isn’t a large stray from the direction of their previous release Crystal Castles (II), (III) finds itself living inside of its paper thin, dismal walls. The record circles through a world of sociological turmoil, while digging deeper at the seams of the miserable gloom that’s stood at the center of the duo’s work since their self-titled debut album. Where the predecessors offered instrumentation that could stray the listener from the haunting underlying of “Celestica” or sensual stability of “Crimewave,” (III) approaches its subject matter in the utmost mature manner possible. It’s a refusal to sugarcoat, an urgent standpoint, and an adamant call toward a core emotion.
Outside of the album’s musical and aesthetic necessities, Alice Glass followed up the intent of its content in an interview with NME. She stated, “There’s lots of themes, but feeling, like, oppressed… A lot of things not personally happening to us, since the past record, but people we know, kind of profoundly influenced everything. Like, I didn’t think I could lose faith in humanity any more than I already had, but after witnessing some things, it just… the world is a dystopia. I’m one step away from being a vigilante. I’ve thought about it.”
Vigilantes or not, Glass and Kath carve a world full of isolated conflicts and aptly begin the record with a song that, by definition, means a disastrous evil or affliction or unwelcome outbreak. “Plague” is the beginning and lead single off of the band’s third project and is one of the strongest, most dynamic cuts from the record. It’s distorted growls are doubled through the stereo image, while a synthesizer lead is slowly filtered into the mix through eight measures of build up. Then, it’s full frequency spectrum comes into place, with lower instrumentation fattening up the mix and a quarter note kick drum aiding direction to the end of the track’s introduction.
Through song structure, Kath, along with additional production and synth work from Jacknife Lee, weave a rise and fall atmosphere with heavy focus on layers through bridge and chorus work, while verse song structure remains almost bare. It’s the song’s final minutes where Alice’s vocal calls are smartly layered at the center of the mix, causing chaos through reversed vocal calls and forward ad-libs that an intense moment of anxiety is brought forth. After a brief pause in instrumental density, Glass is processed through a time-stretched piece of gear and harmonizes beautifully with a lower piece of whole note ending, which leads into the final chorus and climax.
Lyrically, Glass wastes no time getting right down to human injustices. In the bridge, which is repeated twice in “Plague’s” nearly five minute run, she attacks viciously with the lines “virgin cells to penetrate, to premature to permeate. They can’t elucidate, never thought I was the enemy.” Quickly, the hook plainly represents plain focus with a one repeated phrase: “I am the plague.” Unabridged accusations of social corruption, under inklings of an almost pedophilia infused metaphor accurately kill two birds with one stone and steer controversial subject manner to the forefront, without being too overbearing.
Under-engineered percussion samples fuel the beginnings of “Kerosene” and repetitively carries forth an industrially hypnotic, highly synthesized, but light on layers universe. The bulk of the second track on (III) relies on this stagnant bearing, only drifting from it’s structure core during small breaks between verses and the end lines that spell out opposition and offense of the dishonesty and impurities discussed through most of the record. “I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen.” is the next to last line, which is complimented with a complete beat drop, left with one lone synth. It’s arguably the most powerful phrase in this Castles release, with enunciation clear and focused. “Rinse them with saline, kerosene.”
The aforementioned line is stated again through a cappella, then leads right into the opening measures in “Wrath of God”. Intriguingly, the commencement of the third track is optimistic, almost a gleeful introduction, but the facade of happiness ends after three musical stabs that are corrupted throwbacks to the 8-bit influences of their good spirited debut record. Warning of being stripped from your heritage, the song closely runs with the theme of (III) and reaches a gorgeous “Plague” plateau during vulnerable layers of pitched vocal samples and distorted mayhem, ending with a lone, helpless yelp.
The first three tracks on this record are a trilogy within themselves. They’re re-assurements of a black skied spectrum of frequencies and trance-structured electronic-pop music. It’s full of parallel compression in which the kick drum is sent to an aux, which is sent to certain instruments in the mix, and pushes them down in volume. While this is currently a trend in the EDM music scene (and elsewhere), it’s oriented on the Crystal Castles project as a means to present emotional depth through production technique and is executed greatly, for the most part.
In the same NME interview broached earlier, Kath brought up the fact that most of the songs were recorded in one take “because we believe the first take is the rawest expression of an idea.” It’s a creative use of the punk movement that’s rarely explored in Electronic music, but also hinders (III) from diversity. The majority of the synth work and overall structure of music on the record is not derived greatly from one track to the next. While there are plenty of albums that do this in all genres, it’s a move that causes this project to sometimes sound like a redundant cycle of rehashed elements. While it certainly exerts itself toward an attitude of cohesion, and lands itself as one of the most cohesive records released in 2012, the inactive structure does seem to tire from time to time.
Keeping in line with the punk attitude, three songs on (III) are not even mixed. Yes, you read that right, they’re not mixed. “Insulin” works great as a follow up to “Doe Deer” from Crystal Castles (II), in that it’s incredibly distorted, incomprehensible at times, and if it weren’t for the printed lyrics, we’d all be lead to believe that Glass was just repeating the word “Deathray“. They did it well though. The record stays at about an average of 6dB of dynamic range, though a lot of the songs do dip into 7dB, and one time a healthy 8db (on “Telepath”)!
“Sad Eyes” is another track in which Jacknife Lee lends production/synth work too and is the most pop driven cut on the 2012 release with accessible lyrics and presents itself in traditional composition that’s landed itself on universal critic and fan praise.
Another unmixed track is “Mercenary” that falls inline with hip-hop influenced percussion structure and could be a sibling track to the more polished “Affection” which draws from the same urban influences. “Pale Flesh” is also derivative, but leans more Trip-hop.
(III) ends in the way all Crystal Castles albums end: with a slow lament. Also unmixed, “Child I Will Hurt You” summons an ambient, minimal synth-bell adapted formation. It’s delicate, snow-like, and an innocent reflection on the tainted, unlawful substance and tyranny revealed through the duo’s third effort. One worth putting on repeat during a depressing evening and while the chorus is gloomy with its “foray forever” repetition, it’s faithful to truth, a realization in regards to the conscientious atrocities on this Earth.
While three does contain monotonous moments, it’s full of good intention. Accurately, Crystal Castles continues through darkness with their musical kaleidoscope of social issues, shining a light on unscrupulousness, misconduct, crooked values, and portraying the specimens in relentless and fearless approach. Even at its low-points, (III) demonstrates substance in Electronic music at its best.
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