Crystal Castles’ 2008 debut was a welcome revitalization of electronic music. Propelled by the excellent “Crimewave” single, their enjoyable but somewhat unfocused debut showed a great deal of promise for what Crystal Castles might accomplish. 2010’s excellent eponymous album made good on that promise, showcasing a more polished sound and a more consistent vision. So while Crystal Castles passed through the sophomore slump with flying colors, anticipation for the band’s third album raised questions as to whether they could replicate their previous success and whether they could continue evolving artistically.
They’ve certainly taken an artistic step. While much of the music on III echoes their previous work, it is also a distinctly new project. Most notably, the album has a far darker tone than their previous two, as the album cover indicates (the Samuel Aranda photograph shows a mother cradling her son, who had recently been exposed to teargas at a street demonstration in Yemen). And while Crystal Castles was never exactly a party band, the third album finds them much more consistently entrenched in ominous and foreboding soundscapes, as in”Plague,” “Kerosene,” and the ambient “Transgender.”
From a stylistic standpoint, III carries two frustrations for the listener. First, there is very little across the album that makes any of its twelve tracks stand out. That’s not to say that the songs are bad, but generally speaking, they fail to distinguish themselves from the others – the whole album just kind of blurs together. One notable exception is the hauntingly fragile closer “Child I Will Hurt You,” which recalls some of Angelo Badalamenti’s work with David Lynch. Another is the more conventional “Affection,” a logical extension of the band’s earlier work. Beyond these two tracks, there isn’t much in the way of gems on Crystal Castles’ third LP.
The second main frustration of III is its production. In some senses, the album harkens back to the band’s debut, taking a far noisier approach to their songs than their 2010 album. While my inner noise fetishist can appreciate dissonance, here it is so extreme so as to negatively impact other elements of the songs. Alice Glass’ vocals get buried in a cacophony of feedback and electronic noise, reducing her voice to pure sound rather than lyrical verse. Indeed, on “Telepath” and “Insulin,” the in-the-red overmodulation sound mix forces the audio to shift volume in and out in rhythm with the songs’ propulsive electro beat.
Those of us who bought III on the strength of Crystal Castles’ previous albums may be disappointed. Those for whom III is their first exposure to the band may come to the album with a fresher and less critical perspective. But situated with the band’s catalog to date, III takes the band in a slightly different direction, which is commendable. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly interesting direction.