Rene’s Letter-Essay #7: Crystal Castles III

Rene Itah


Period 5 ILA

Hey, remember when I wrote a letter-essay about an album? And how it wasn’t even really a letter-essay, since it wasn’t a book, and I obviously shouldn’t do that again? Yeah, I’m doing it again. Sorry. This time, it’s about a Crystal Castles album, their third album. The first thing that you should know is that it’s also their third self-titled album. Meaning they have three albums, and they’re all called Crystal Castles. So yeah, they don’t really follow rules of music. Or actually, of society in general. The lead singer, Alice Glass, is known for punching audience members at concerts, they’ve sampled music without permission, and are just all around kind of jerks, earning them lots of haters. Well, those haters must’ve been disappointed when they heard this album, because it’s undeniably great. And since I’m a huge fan of CC, I obviously had to listen to this album.


It opens with Plague, and it’s clear that they’ve been heavily influenced by their good friends CRIM3S, another band they’ve collaborated with. Alice Glass’ usually shrieking voice is instead low and husky, whispering dark. Murky lyrics as the underlying synths grow louder and louder, until – BAM! The synths are heaving, sub-bass is snarling at you while aggressive drums assail your ears with pure rage – Alice Glass’ bratty, crying voice is back from the dead, and so are her cryptic, powerful lyrics, this time seemingly political (Infants in infantry / rewrite their history / uproot their colony / you’re ripe for harvesting). She ends the song as it began, whispering “I need you pure, I need you clean”. This is the first instance of purity’s conceptual hold over this album, and a fantastic way to begin this album.


Then comes Kerosene, a song that opens with trap drums quickly joined by a low, detuned saw as bass and chopped up high vocals, recalling children’s babble. Alice’s lower register is back in use – a clear change from their last album, in which her voice was either bratty and shrieking or not there at all. As the beat deconstructs itself, a distorted synth joins the mix, adding a melodic element to the track. The lyrics are unintelligible until 2 minutes and 20 seconds in, when her voice can be heard urgently whispering “I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen” before the bass comes back in and the track ends.


Next up is Wrath of God. If you haven’t noticed, this album has a lot of religion involved. The album cover is actually a highly edited photo of a Yemeni woman holding her dead son while dressed in a Burka. It opens with synths in major key, joined by high bells and ghostly groans. Then, suddenly, it stops, and you hear a prolonged chord over a thumping kick drum – then, all the synths come in and so do Alice’s dark lyrics, all heavily tinged with religious themes (Christen them with paraffin / sterilize Samaritans / contravene loyal ties /migrate through the pesticide / they’ll strip you of your heritage). The synths are staggering with the kickdrum, dipping in volume every time it hits to create the effect of a heartbeat. As soon as it began, it’s over.


Then comes Affection. This is by far the most relaxed of the album’s main events. Gated synths serve as a backdrop for Glass to spit one of the greatest lines in the history of goth music – “catch a moth, hold it in my hands / crush it casually. / Without a past, I can’t disappoint / my ancestry). The production is remarkable, with Alice’s voice brutally manipulated – slowed down, chopped up, and reversed – complementing the pounding bass drum.


Up next is Pale Flesh. Whoa. It opens with a high-pitched, arrhythmic sound that can be compared to nails against a chalkboard or a squeaking mouse before it’s joined by pounding trap drums – another mark of CRIM3S’ influence on Crystal Castles’ producer, Ethan Kath. “Place the ash on / their foreheads! An impression / to embed!” Demands Glass over the undeniably torturous instrumental. You want to stop listening, but you don’t really. At 1:54, Glass’ voice is left solo before quickly being joined by the other instruments. Again, you can hear her manipulated vocals in the background – ghosts of voices, not even.


Then you have Sad Eyes, a song whose title is a reference to women forced to wear burkas. It begins with exploding bass, synths, drums – no buildup here. The chords rise and drop cinematically, and then Glass’ reversed voice is paired with her unedited one – a grouping that makes for a haunting listening experience. It feels like a call-and-response as much as it feels like an anguished cry for help.


Then comes Insulin. The first 7 seconds are smooth sailing: high, ambient synths carry a haunting melody, until they’re suddenly and sharply interrupted by throbbing, distorted synths, warped to unimaginable degrees. A snare drum hits every 2nd beat, acting as a metronome. Then comes Alice’s voice. If you thought it was hard to understand before, just try this. It’s in her lower register, until it’s not – when the distorted synths come back, her voice sounds like a cry, a scream. You swear you can hear her say “help me!”. And then it’s over, with nothing to remember it by other than 3 seconds of reverberated calm in contrast to the insane adrenaline rush that was Insulin.


Next on the album is Transgender, a song beginning with creepy synths and an underlying saw bass similar to that on Kerosene. Alice Glass starts to sing. “You!” she cries, making it sound  like an accusation. “Will you ever preserve, will you ever exhume? / will you watch petals shed from flowers in bloom?”. Again, purity is a theme here: “and you’ll never be pure again” warns Glass before drums come in. The lyrics seem cryptic as always here – until you take the title into account. She’s taking on the role of religious fundamentalists arguing against transgenderism. The drums stress you out, Glass continuously screaming “You!” is stressing you out, that bass is definitely stressing you out. At least the next song is more relaxed.


Just kidding. Next is Violent Youth. The introduction consists of phased synths equalized so that all you can hear is treble, occasionally joined by a wordless voice saying “oh”. Don’t even bother understanding these words. Glass’ voice has been pitched down again, but this time there’s no unaltered voice to join it – except for the one reciting the one recognizable line: “and I will always let you down”, right before the beat drops and the same childlike vocals found on Kerosene manically jump up and down, chopped beyond salvation, sounding like something in between a cry and a laugh.


Then you have Telepath. It begins with a strange, ugly loop that sounds like it’s been stretched and looped out of time – before it’s replaced with heavily sidechained wordless vocals and a CRIM3S-like sub-bass creating a whirlwind of sound. However, this song relies on repetition, and well overstays its welcome at nearly 4 minutes long.


Then comes Mercenary, opening with oddly processed synths, sounding as though they’ve been reversed. That’s because they have been. Go listen to Sad Eyes again; it’s the same synths, played backwards. A house-like hi-hat loop punctuates this track before the reversed synth is suddenly pitched down – a surprisingly effective change from their typically trap-style drums.


Now you have Child I Will Hurt You, the final track. Crystal Castles have a thing with closers – they’re always totally different from the rest of the album. On their first, it was Tell Me What to Swallow – a heartbreaking song about abuse from the perspective of a victim in denial, inexplicably sung in the style of Enya – recorded again and again and layered – over an acoustic guitar. On their second, the last track was I Am Made of Chalk, an unexplainable song consisting of a voice so brutally manipulated that all you hear is some horrible sea monster dying, placed over devastating synth chords. It allegedly has lyrics – and many fan theories exist – but the one lyric you can understand is “Will I be okay?”. So, you know you’re in for quite a ride on this track. It begins with light bells that recall music boxes lulling you to sleep. A bassline comes in, and Alice can be heard singing – in her lower register, thank god – “keep them locked away / reduce them to strays / clean their cuts and scrapes”, but somehow, despite the threatening lyrics, this song is nothing short of comforting. Glass’ voice is layered, creating a haunting choral effect, before she dips out, and the bells are joined by a wordless, beautiful wail. The song – and album – closes with the same bells it began with, stripped down to nothing but the melody, fading away, slowly, but surely.


One set of lyrics that really struck me was Plague’s “Infants in / infantry / rewrite their / history”, because it paints a picture and makes a political statement without being literal. She doesn’t mention Palestine or Syria or Somalia. She doesn’t bring up foreign policy, name-drop any politicians, or anything like that. Her lyrics are totally abstract, yet translate into a clear meaning. Many other lyrics follow this format – poetically arresting and clearly meaningful – Transgender, Sad Eyes, and Wrath of God are all rife with cryptic, subtly political lines, but Plague’s shrieked couplets stand out because of their musical backdrop. It’s the only song that has an instrumental as alarming and disorienting as its lyrics.


If I had to rate this album out of 10, I’d give it an 8. Unlike their first album, it has a cohesive structure, and all of the songs were clearly intended to be a part of an album. However, some songs, like Mercenary, Violent Youth, and Sad Eyes fall into the blur of Synths and reverberated voices. Cut out the filler, and this is one of the best electronic albums of all time.

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1 thought on “Rene’s Letter-Essay #7: Crystal Castles III

  1. A letter-essay does not have to be about a book for it to be a letter-essay; it’s still a letter, and it’s still an essay. And if anyone else is interested in doing what Rene has done, just ask me, as he has done, and perhaps I’ll say that that is okay.

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