Dance Archives

Crystal Castles: Better Than Justice


Since the face been revealed, game got real

Crystal Castles’ “Knights” is basically screamy basement-show post-hardcore played on crappy synths. In the early part of the decade, bands like Rah Brahs and Men’s Recovery Project were messing around with this sort of thing, adding cheap electronics to their jittery scraping noise. “Knights” works the same way. It starts out with a hammering, almost annoying hyper-compressed drum-machine twack, then Alice Glass starts screaming through what sounds like a vocoderized megaphone, her words rendered almost entirely incomprehensible. A minute or so in, a whole bunch of vintage video-game sound-effects come in, but the effect isn’t wam or nostalgic; they’re layered on top of each other to the point where they become disorienting static. But there’s something else going on in this track, something that separates Crystal Castles entirely from their bleep-skree forbears: an absurdly catchy Eurocheese keyboard bit that could’ve come straight off a Vengaboys record. Keyboard bits like those have apparently been enough to move Crystal Castles from the basement-show ghetto to the blog-house universe. The Toronto duo has been getting a ton of hype-noise lately from the sort of websites that traffic in hype-noise. And maybe the time is right for a group that can convincingly weld confrontational herky-jerk Gravity Records hardcore to sugar-rush house. Justice, after all, have been mauling their Daft Punk filter-disco thump with jarring squalls of noise and huge, dumb brontosaurus riffs for a couple of years now, and they’re big enough to play the small room at Madison Square Garden. But Justice isn’t fundamentally different from Daft Punk; they’re a French house group who toys around with visceral effects and ideas without letting them derail the central pulse of their music. Crystal Castles, meanwhile, is on some other shit.

By which I mean that Crystal Castles approach this dance-music thing from a different angle entirely. Crystal Castles are, as far as I can tell, basement-show types attempting to make dance music rather than dance-music types playing around with noise. There’s a pretty big difference between the two. At their most obvious (I’m thinking of “Alice Practice” here), Crystal Castles basically sound like low-rent electroclash: flat, affected processed vocals over rudimentary Casio-preset rhythm tracks. But even a track like “Alice Practice” has at least one of those ridiculously catchy little keyboard bits buried in there. Crystal Castles have serious and assured pop instincts, but they can never bring themselves to let their hooks go entirely unmolested. The duo is named after an old Atari game that I never played (or She-Ra’s castle; reports vary), and old video-game signifiers (cheap, simplistic synth melodies in particular) come up a lot, almost as a distancing tactic. Those keyboards tend to sound fundamentally unhealthy, like someone’s only deigning to play them after trying and half-succeeding to melt out all their inner workings. Everything is treated to sound like everything else; they layers of pretty noises on “Magic Spells,” for instance, could be vocals made to sound like synths or synths made to sound like vocals. But as cheap and disorienting as all this might sound, almost every track on their pretty great self-titled debut album works as actual dance music, albeit dance music of a particularly forbidding and queasy stripe.

Somehow, Crystal Castles have allowed themselves to be subsumed into the sometimes-risible nu-rave scene; they’ve remixed Uffie and the Klaxons and shit like that. But it’s not entirely a comfortable fit. Maybe I’m wrong to read too much into this, but the second track on that self-titled album is a remix to “Crimewave,” a track from the LA spaz-rockers HEALTH, which to me implies noise-scene insiderdom. So what we’ve got here is a group that makes this dizzy starry-eyed pop music and then does whatever it can to disrupt and distort and molest that pop music. Plenty of bands have tried that approach, but the end result is very rarely anything you can dance to. Crystal Castles have managed to walk a thin line between Justice and, like, Fuck Buttons, and they music they’ve come up with in the process is, for my money, stickier and more compelling than almost anything I’ve heard from either of those other groups. They’re onto something here, and I’m curious to see where they take it.