Friday, October 31, 2008

Bit torrents

Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles
Score: 9

If you grew up in the late '70s or in the '80s, chances are you spent a fair amount of time playing video games. And as you exercised your thumbs --- or your wrists, if you had a joystick --- your brain soaked up all that repetitive theme music.

As Crystal Castles, Ethan Kath and Alice Glass of Toronto take an experimental approach to music making, one of their tools being sounds from a modified Atari. It's a key launch point for whatever strikes their fancy. On their first full-length, that's a compelling agglomeration of rock freakouts, ambient techno, pitch-shifted vocals and creative samples.

Kath, who does the music, employs synths, sequencers and circuit bending. Glass, the singer, revels in the emotional purge of a shriek. Kath's manipulation enables Crystal Castles to change and rearrange those bleeps and blips and burbles, marshaling them into something greater than the sum of their parts. Witness his chopping and splicing on "Untrust Us" (sampling Death From Above 1979) and "Crimewave" (sampling Health).

In the frantic "Xxzxcuzx Me," Glass excoriates the mike over machine-gun beats as circuitry spasms around her. "Knights," which begins with a deep synth bassline and a metronomic clicking, drenches its druggy vocal line with distorted keys. "Untrust Us" builds its humming chant over a pattern of synth bloops, bringing in a faint buzzing in advance of the chorus. The buzzing, like a garage band at only a hundredth the volume, is nearly subliminal. Until the end of the song, that is, when it kicks into the foreground at full volume.

More than the half the tracks on Crystal Castles are uptempo numbers indebted to house, techno and electro-pop. "1991" palpitates with binary beats, fervidly pulsing before sliding into "Vanished," a relative breather. The vocals you hear on "Vanished" come not from Kath but from an extended sample of Australian band Van She. The instrumentals and songs with sampled vocals buffer the acid in Glass' strangled yelps and cries, providing variety and lending stability.

But just when you think you've sized them up, Crystal Castles reveal the surprise among surprises, "Tell Me What to Swallow." All vapor and gossamer, it shows that Glass can sing -- like an angel even, when she's awash in overdubs. Profane, meet sacred.

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