Crystal Castles’ best song isn’t available on one of their albums and it doesn’t even feature Alice Glass’s distinctive voice for anything more than contrast. Released in the aftermath of their second critically acclaimed album in 2010, “Not in Love” featuring the voice of the Cure’s Robert Smith was a reworked version of a cut from the album, originally a music box techno tune with cute robot vocal effects. The new version, instead, featured the almost completely whole voice of the aging indie rocker and coupled it with a new wave of ferocity, turning the tinny creep-show of the album-cut to a full-on Saw film. The remake, with Smith’s help, served to exaggerate what the album version had already shown, that the group’s secret to success was a knowing mix of effects driven bluster and creative, but ultimately traditional melodies.
The awkwardly but logically titled (III) sees the band taking each of these two signatures further, but with less coordination than in the past. We get to see the band in a more exploratory mode, trying to flip more complex and affected melodic lines and playing with more distorted and intense production, but rarely both at the same time.
They spend the first half of the album trying to flex their melodic muscle a little bit tighter than they are really capable. Alice Glass sings along awkward, pause-heavy paths, raising her voice to a wail at the most inopportune places. At times, her voice mimics distortion, becoming purposefully atonal and strangely accented, a turn not well-suited for music that is attempting to be ethereal.
Production mostly plays an uninterestingly supportive role at the album’s beginning. “Wrath of God” may be the only standout track from the melody side, only because it dials back the melodic noodling to the point where the sweet elements of Alice’s voice are allowed to come through the structure. Even then, the sugar-plum fairy pre-verse segments of “Wrath” can be more frustrating than novel, and novelty isn’t even what the listener really wants. The next track, “Affection”, is the first half’s most successful. It only succeeds, however, because it utilizes vocal effects in a way that all of the preceding tracks do not. For once, they aid, rather than alter, the melody.
With “Insulin”, the album becomes effects driven. Tracks like “Transgender” are mostly about atmosphere: reverb drenched, slowly paced, and all over the place. Glass’ voice is sometimes accent, sometimes instrument, sometimes indistinguishable from the fuzz. These songs are often more rhythmic and loud than the previous and for that we should be grateful: the duo’s sense for the beat is unwavering. The faster tracks move with the speed and force of only the most successful 4/4 masters. “Telepath”, however, is the most beat-driven track as well as the most uninteresting, relying on almost quaintly spooky thematics and entry level EDM tension.
Only once does the duo find exhilerating creativity behind the boards. “Insulin”, clocking in at 1:30, is painfully short for an album chock full of tracks in need of an energy boost. Essentially sounding like a toddler playing with a volume fader, “Insulin” manages to make almost certainly annoying sonic playfulness into full on horror music. It would be a perfect intro for the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, furiously writhing from the depths of your speakers, brutally equipped to confirm your worst fears. The song is, of course, a blessing and a curse on an album with no songs that come close to its intensity. It shows us that we have not been completely deluded about these two’s competence, but also that the songs that surround it are frightfully inadequate considering their talent.