Very much a Jekyll & Hyde outfit, Canadian electroclash duo Crystal Castles are capable of producing moments of gothic beauty but are also prone to creating aggressively unhinged soundscapes that are the stuff of nightmares.
Considering that the hugely charismatic but slightly terrifying frontwoman Alice Glass has claimed that themes of dystopia, oppression and corruption dominate the record, you’d expect their third album, simply titled, III, to fall even further into the latter category. Even more so when you see that the unremittingly bleak artwork features an award-winning photo of a Yemeni woman cradling her son following a tear gas attack on a protest march.
However, with the enigmatic Ethan Kath taking over production duties for the first time, the album’s eleven tracks present a less abrasive Crystal Castles who are now more eerily haunting than blood-curdlingly frightening. Indeed, only the brief death march instrumental of “Insulin” and the shrieking witchy house of “Pale Flesh” truly assault the senses in the brutal manner we’ve become accustomed to.
There’s still plenty of chaos elsewhere. “Transgender” begins as a spooky spiritual choral number before seguing into a frenetic slice of German techno, “Kerosene” blends chopped-up acid-house with skittering two-step garage beats and doom-laden industrial synths whilst the euphoric EDM of “Sad Eyes” throws up a curveball in the shape of its virtually ABBA-esque melody.
But for the most part, by adhering to a strict ‘No Computers Allowed’ rule whilst recording, the pair have abandoned their usual array of 8-bit bleeps for a warmer and more ethereal, if still unashamedly deranged, direction, whether it’s the shimmering post-R&B of “Affection,” the ghostly dubstep of opener “Plague” or the chiming mournful lullaby of closer “Child I Will Hurt You,” all of which pack an emotional punch even though you have little idea of what Glass is mumbling about.
There’s nothing here quite as stunning as “Celestica” or as immediately thrilling as “Baptism.” But although it’s less likely to leave you cowering in the corner of your room, III is still a beautifully unnerving record which proves that Crystal Castles are about more than just shock tactics.