Electronic music is constantly ready to evolve, a point Crystal Castles seem determined to prove on their self-titled debut. They come from a heavily retro/electro place in the spectrum, wallowing in bits of debris from the ‘80s: video game bleeps and pixilated sounds found deep in the Casio archive. But it’s all twisted up, prodded past redundancy or homage to a state that feels genuinely innovative. How do they manage this? Part of the answer is in Alice Glass’s vocals, which are endlessly malleable; she can punk-scream her way through blizzards of squeaky noise ("Alice Practice," "Love and Caring") or get cute ("Good Time") without breaking character. But the real secrets to their reinvention, ironically enough, are in old-school details like melody, hooks and unpredictable, fun songwriting. All the boops, bleeps and whirs in the world can’t distract from the catchiness of songs like "Black Panther" and "Air War." Still, it must be said that listening to the record is vaguely unnerving at times; you feel a bit like Pac-Man stuck in his blocky maze. And yeah, some songs stretch invention into irritation (the unlistenable "Xxzxcuzx Me"). On the other hand, it never fails to be interesting and repeated listens smooth out the edges just enough to appreciate the band’s careful shading and confidence. So open your mind, enjoy the rampant creativity, and don’t eat the ghosts until they turn blue. –Matthew Cooke
Review by Heather Phares
No matter how much Crystal Castles insist they're named after She-Ra's fortress and not the 1983 arcade favorite, thanks to the Atari sound chips in their keyboards, their music evokes vintage video game soundtracks -- albeit ones that have been folded, spindled, and mutilated almost past recognition. On their self-titled debut, Crystal Castles (aka Ethan Kath and Alice Glass) hurl eight-bit bleeps, bloops, and noise as relentlessly as Space Invaders marching down a screen, turning these sounds into sometimes chaotic, sometimes moody synth pop with a jagged edge. Though their low-res synths can't help but sound nostalgic (and song titles like "Air War" and "Reckless" sound like forgotten games), Crystal Castles are fresher, more complex, and much less gimmicky than might be expected, especially for those familiar with only the band's singles. Granted, those singles are still some of Crystal Castles' definitive tracks: the darkly, violently catchy "Alice Practice" pits Glass' serrated but melodic shout-singing against rippling, strafing, and strobing synth onslaughts, and "Crimewave" gives that sound a brooding groove. However, Crystal Castles go wider and deeper on the rest of the album, teetering between order and chaos, noise and melody, and energy and atmosphere in ways that are unpredictable but consistently interesting. Glass is a chameleon, terrifying on one track and kittenish on another. She's a black-eyed, short-circuiting android on "Xxzxcuzx Me," singing of "robotic love" as her voice degrades into pixels almost as soon as she opens her mouth, and a spaced-out valley girl bopping to "Good Time"'s deceptively cheery pulse. Indeed, a remarkable amount of melancholy haunts Crystal Castles, from the eerie keening on the Knife-like opening track, "Untrust Us," to the danceable gloom of "Vanished" and the wistful, almost serene "Magic Spells" -- all of which throw freakouts like the claustrophobic electro bump 'n' grind "Love and Caring" into even brasher contrast. By the time Crystal Castles wind down with "Tell Me What to Swallow"'s ethereal cooing and guitars, it's clear that Kath and Glass are already looking for more ways to expand on this familiar-sounding, edgy, innocent, menacing, bold, nuanced, and altogether striking debut.
[Last Gang; 2008]
Crystal Castles prefer traveling light. While the hotly-tipped and already hotly-contested Toronto duo's basement party set-up doesn't look like it'll fill up the passenger seat on a tour van, they also like to play fast and loose with their associations. They've remixed at a Hot Chip-like pace for everyone from Bloc Party to Uffie to Klaxons, but they're not a part of your nu-rave genre (really, who is?), or blog house for that matter. Their debut LP partly picks from 7" and 12"s that have been available in some format since 2005, and it's every bit as difficult to pin down.
The lead track samples DFA 1979's "Dead Womb" and places those vocals atop a cyclical synth loop while they get disembodied and chopped up-- both function as song-length hooks. But the thing's called "Untrust Us" (natch) and by the next one, they're making good on that claim. "Alice Practice" absolutely sears with megaphoned (emphasis on mega) barking and Ethan Fawn's Atari-laced keyboards going on the fritz and racking up free plays. Ah, so this is what an arcade fire sounds like.
They don't stay in one place for too long, but the body of the album can be distilled to an essence of the glassy, ten-lane stare of Last Exit with Ed Banger's egg-frying EQ. Well, except when it sounds more like "Alice Practice" ("Xxzcuzx Me" and "Knights" are a bit interchangeable in their diminishing returns). Whether it's a thank you or challenge to everyone they've worked with, Crystal Castles opens up endless remix possibilities. Though hardly minimal, there's plenty to easily pick apart and work with-- "Good Time" is a veritable toybox with undulating octaves, an almost Eastern-sounding riff and tweaked nice-guy vocals which combine the Knife and New Order. Even if you can't really make out the words, the call-and-response chant of "Courtship Dating" glows amidst fizzy synths and Triple 6 drum clicks. And "Crimewave (Crystal Castles vs. HEALTH)", is a collaboration with the LA noisemongers that builds from now-retro electroclash to a clattering mix of drums.
Just when you think you've gotten your paragraph-long blurb ready for the internet's approval, the last two tracks offer a bait and switch; the mad dash of "Black Panther" is probably what nu-rave was supposed to sound like (the Goth! Team?), and then the record ends on a disquietingly beautiful shoegaze comedown played on an acoustic guitar of all things ("Tell Me What to Swallow"). That they play such hide and seek musically should've come as no surprise anyway; despite the fact that there's literally an Atari game named "Crystal Castles", they named themselves after a She-Ra playset, which is like finding out LeBron James chose to wear uniform number at #23 as a tribute to his favorite Jimmy Eat World song. Then again, it's fitting for a record that draws so much of its power from unpredictability.
— Ian Cohen, March 17, 2008