Unhinged synth terrorists Crystal Castles have never been the most chipper band, but Alice Glass’ comments on what inspired their new record, (III), hint at even darker influences. “I didn’t think I could lose faith in humanity any more than I already had,” the frontwoman said in a press release. “But after witnessing some things, it feels like the world is a dystopia where victims don’t get justice and corruption prevails.”
And so after a relatively tame second album—2010’s (II), which struck a balance between streamlined synth-pop and raucous digital destruction—the Canadian duo has reverted back to the messy, choppy style found on its 2008 self-titled debut. But instead of anarchist dance jams full of crunchy 8-bit noise, (III) is more like a static-filled radio station fading in and out of range. The wobbly keyboards and clipped beats on “Plague” and “Mercenary” aren’t in step, so the songs sound like they’re being played through malfunctioning speakers, while “Kerosene” cobbles together chipmunk-vocal gibberish, chilly 8-bit Nintendo effects, and mechanical rhythms. While (III) can use this disorientation effectively—both “Violent Youth” and the instrumental “Telepath” are icy disco shape-shifters—too often the music is irritating, not disruptive.
It’s also disappointing that Glass’ vocals are de-emphasized, even on (III)’s best songs. Noise diffracts her voice on the grinding death march “Insulin,” while her murmurs are buried in the mix on the hip-hop-tinged “Affection” and the murky “Transgender,” which resembles The Cure’s early-’80s synth-punk. While it seems symbolic that Glass’ voice is obscured—her vocals become another way to convey angst, sadness and frustration—the album feels deflated without her yowls and screeches at the forefront.
Not everything suffers from this ennui. “Sad Eyes” sounds like a goth-night anthem from 1986 with its cheesy big beats and whooshing keyboards, while the minimalist electro-pop surge-and-drone “Wrath Of God” embodies deep mental anguish. As the latter song implies, more than anything, (III) is an introverted album preoccupied with despair and cynicism. By itself, this isn’t a bad thing; after all, hopelessness and pessimism is a potent combination. But, as is the case with (III), it’s also far too easy to lose perspective and focus when the music and sentiments are so inwardly focused.