Like She-Ra and unicorns, it’s best to think of Crystal Castles as an imaginary force. While there are two presumably real people in the Toronto-based “band” (Ethan Kath produces, Alice Glass sings), almost everything about them personally–including their names, their past, and how they came to be–is fabricated. That ambiguity might be a cheap press stunt, but the alternate, optimistic read is that Kath’s and Glass’ personal details don’t matter anyway. This isn’t music made by humans, but characters–the kind found in grainy fantasy cartoons and garage-sale videogames. If you can buy into that world, this is an album that flirts with brilliance.
For anyone following Crystal Castles’ blog-splattered exploits, nothing on the band’s self-titled debut will be a huge shock. The majority of the tracks, notably “Untrust Us,” “Good Time,” and “Alice Practice,” have been floating around for at least a year now, with newer material like “Through the Hosiery” and “Reckless” not exactly breaking free from the established template. That is to say, there’s a very specific, simple formula at work on this record, one that–aside from the final, tacked-on shoegazer cut “Tell Me What to Swallow”–is never strayed from.
Any kid raised on ’80s videogames is no doubt familiar with the sound of Crystal Castles. The kick/snare thud and crack of early industrial makes up at least 90 percent of the drum work, with the melody filled in by whirrs and beeps straight out of the underwater levels of Super Mario Brothers. The production is bit-crushed and pixilated, though not in a cold and murky way–the low-key “Magic Spells” is full of warm, ghostly melancholy, like the end-credit music for an imaginary Nintendo game.
Filtered through the same pixilation effects, Glass’ vocals run the gamut between unintelligible textures and screamed-out chants. As catchy and strange as the beats are by themselves, it’s Glass’ presence that really plays up the imaginary aspect of Crystal Castles’ persona: Her shifts between a voice trapped in the game and her cartoonish, exaggerated emotion make her seem more like a walking sample than a real person.
The other strange presence on this record is the ghost of electroclash. Maybe not the coolest touchstone to throw around at this point, but it’s definitely present: “Air War” has more than a passing resemblance to Adult.’s “Nite Life,” and “Knights” could just as easily find itself next to Kittenz and Thee Glitz-era Felix da Housecat. A lot of that has to do with Kath’s reliance on octave-jumping basslines, big synth-string choruses, and pop-music structures, which definitely isn’t a bad thing. It’s just funny to think of a whole new generation of kids that has never heard Fischerspooner.
By the close of the album, there’s a sense that too much of a good thing ends up being pretty damn samey, but it’s that narrow scope that also happens to be Crystal Castles’ greatest strength. Step out of the 8-bit confines, and there’d be no illusion; the concept would come off like a gimmick. And while that may limit the scope of what the band can do in the future, maybe that’s for the best. It’s not like we don’t keep going back to those old Nintendo games, anyway.