There is an incredibly emotional scene in the first season of the first generation of ‘Skins’ that gloriously encapsulates the menace and beauty of ‘Crystal Castles’: A mourning but painfully numb Sid turns up at a concert soon after the death of his father (like only a character on Skins would do). Motionless, he stares unblinkingly at the dark-haired woman lacerating her voice into the microphone. Eventually as the Tetris bleeps and whiplash electronics of ‘Alice Practice’ erupt into crescendo, the well of emotion that he had pent up overflows into one of the most affecting crying moments on teen television.
But that’s what the Toronto electronic two-piece provided. And that’s why the news from lead singer Alice Glass that the band was disbanding, was (almost) as a sad as that scene in a dingy nightclub, because Crystal Castles meant so many things; equal parts punk, thrash, goth and abrasive electronics, we grew up with them and they grew up with us. The definitive band of the ether that is the post-internet, their three albums provided an invidious selection of spellbinding and captivating songs; in commemoration, here’s a selection of the ten best:
10. Untrust Us – Crystal Castles
“La cocaina no / Es Buena / Para su salud / La cocaine / Is not good for you”, Alice Glass sings the almost incomprehensible refrain over the template that would define Crystal Castles’ sound: an array of kitsch sampled electronic sounds and Glass’s voice filtered and processed to sinister perfection. Coming off their first album that was made up of a collection of recordings that producer Ethan Kath had made with Glass, the dark ode to a horrible drug trip was an ominous signs of things to come.
9. Crimewave (Crystal Castles v HEALTH) – Crystal Castles
The abrasive Los Angeles noise-rock band Health are an obvious kindred spirit to Crystal Castles, so when Kath decided to chop and screw the HEALTH song, ‘Crimewave’, to create a midtempo remix, it seemed like the perfect foil for the song. But ‘Crimewave’s brilliance is in its unexpected complexity. It seems relatively straightforward with its steady electroclash drumbeat and keyboard chords, but have you ever heard a catchier song made up of samples from 90s videogames? You’re not likely to either.
8. Doe Deer – Crystal Castles II
Despite the underground success of the decidedly unpolished Crystal Castles, nothing quite prepared us for the stylistic growth and maturity of Crystal Castles II. Taking on a smorgasbord of more divergent electronic sounds and turning that on in glossy effect, it remains a simple triumph. But even as they created more memorable sounds, they finely honed their punk and noise roots. ‘Doe Deer’ is the culmination as Glass’s voice is manipulated to sound like an earth-razing laser, igniting and obliterating everything in its sight. The schizophrenic synths teeter on the edge of the abyss of disorder and it is Crystal Castles’ most delirious moment. It is tool they hinted at in the earlier ‘XXZXCUZ Me’ and later on the brutal ‘Insulin’.
7. Knights – Crystal Castles
Together with ‘Vanished’, ‘Knights’ is the most mature Crystal Castles sound on their debut. It’s a rollicking techno number that sort of marries dark Italo-disco with 80s synthpop sensibilities. The bubbling synths also show that as dark as Kath liked to fashion Crystal Castles to be, they were equally capable of being lithe and sensual.
6. Mercenary – III
If Crystal Castles II showed the stylistic maturity of the group, then III represented a very mature and deliberate progression in their themes. The album cover – a niqab wearing Yemeni women holding a relative fatally injured in government protests, was Crystal Castles showing their growth from punk to post-punk. Their most sonically cohesive album, the pillars of capitalism, avarice and patriarchy are attacked with equal impunity.
The punishing ‘Mercenary’ is the obvious example of this as Glass sings, with her voice relatively unprocessed, “Silhouettes caress without feeling / Who’ll be your mercenary”, before her voice is subsumed under the sheer force of the most severe synth deluge that acts like an impenetrable miasma of loathing.
5. Celestica – Crystal Castles II
The lead single off of their second album, ‘Celestica’, found Crystal Castles as an almost incomparable band to the one that dropped Crystal Castles. Glass’s voice, appropriately glassy and liquid, weaves through the disco architecture of Kath’s beguiling production. Even with their eyes set on the darkness, they could not help but revel in the faint twinkle of the stars.
4. Suffocation – Crystal Castles II
The bleak glamour continued on the sultry ‘Suffocation’. But that belies the gruesome nihilism of the relationship on the songs as Glass sings, “I’m wasting my days as I’ve wasted my nights and I’ve wasted my youth / You’re waiting for something you’ve waited in vain because there’s nothing for you”. The emotions are more complex, as the words and the music is charting skywards and Kath creates a shattered and warped version of the dancefloor for the broken dreams Glass describes.
3. Affection – III
III’s stylistic merits are in full display on the hip-hop indebted ‘Affection’. Featuring a sample that sounds like the dying roars of an elephant, Crystal Castles again subvert the love song trope by making it a paean to the futility of love and beauty itself as Glass whispers, “Catch a moth hold it in my hand / Crush it casually”. Although their songs are made of sparse and oblique lyrics, by the time of ‘Affection’ their stilted worldview had matured to a brooding and insightful cynicism, as they mused on the malaise of our disconnected and sadistic times.
2. Not In Love (ft. Robert Smith) – Crystal Castles II
The album version of ‘Not In Love’ on Crystal Castles II was the poppiest song Kath ever produced and an inventive cover of the forgotten original by Platinum Blonde. Built from an ebullient and sparkling keyboard riff and steadily rising drumbeat, it is offset by a vocal sample that is pitch-shifted to such an effect that it sounds synthetic and inhuman – a juxtaposition that made for a very good song. But in one of those golden moments of music history written by a very benevolent deity, the single of ‘Not In Love’ was released with the vocals of indie stalwart and demigod himself, Robert Smith of The Cure. Buoyant and with every lyric another life-affirming utterance, it is quite simply the biggest song Crystal Castles ever released, one of those indelible moments in music that you never forget.
1. Baptism – Crystal Castles II
If there is one song that truly combines all that Crystal Castles is then it is the truly immense ‘Baptism’. From the chilly electronica opening, to Glass’s razor-like delivery, the techno groove and the prickly keyboard, it is truly an assault to the ears – an all-consuming and suffocating aural assault like only they could provide.
It is difficult to speculate as to what Crystal Castles’ legacy will be in years to come: as provocative innovators or as a kitschy fad. But whether history is kind to them or not is beside the point, because in the present no one made music that so seamlessly meshed dissonance and beauty, the political with the insular and the digital with the distinctly human. All while making us dance? It was great time to be alive.