‘Oppression is a theme, in general’: the first statement to usher in Crystal Castles’ latest effort gave an air of a throwaway remark. Business as usual then, for a band who’ve shocked and enthralled audiences in equal measure with their harrowing brand of electronica. Crystal Castles are mad at the world – that much is obvious – but they were telling the truth: their third self-titled record somehow manages to up the ante even more, creating their most uncompromisingly dark work yet.
For the Toronto duo, ‘the world is a dystopia where victims don’t get justice and corruption prevails’, though backstory isn’t entirely necessary; the confrontational opener Plague makes an even stronger statement. After an atmospheric build, the song takes the urgent aesthetic of rave and warps it into something much more apocalyptic, enveloping it around distorted beats and an imposing shroud of reverb – the perfect complement to the frenzied shrieks of vocalist Alice Glass. As such, it’s only apt that III at times attempts to lift the veil surrounding Glass’ often understated lyrics – more so than on any of their previous work. Affection laces Alice’s vocals with sweeter-than sugar manipulation for her only to deliver an epithet on man’s destruction: ‘catch a moth, hold it in my hand’ she calmly sings, holding back before brutally ending the line, ‘crush it casually.’ It’s a juxtaposition that the band have played with before on the likes of 2010’s Celestica, but here the disparate elements are much more pronounced, to an even more disturbing effect.
Despite amounting to one whole bleak feeling, the album nonetheless covers a lot of ground, moving from Plague’s aforementioned agit-rave to more witch-house territory (Kerosene, Pale Flesh), all the way to the Euro-trance of Sad Eyes. Side B begins and ends with two completely distinctive approaches: Insulin follows the tradition of chaotic, lo-fidelity recordings that appear once on each album, slicing Glass’ vocals until they’re unintelligible. Meanwhile the closing track Child, I Will Hurt You also enforces the duo’s penchant for more experimental conclusions, this time opting for the serenity of dream-pop. What unifies these tracks is the way in which Ethan Kath treats them with the same distorted production effects. These are still (for the most part) dance-oriented tracks at their core, just even more brooding, once again playing to juxtaposition.
Surprisingly, limiting themselves to single takes has resulted in Crystal Castles’ most cohesive album yet. These twelve tracks certainly inhabit dark, twisted environments, but the true horror hits when you realise that these aren’t fabricated worlds. Indeed, just like the manipulated image of the album art – a mother in Yemen holding her son after being exposed to tear gas – the dystopia of III is unmistakably our own reality.