If Crystal Castles’s self-titled debut made it sound like Pac-Man was only half his then-nearly 28 years and wore down listener resistance by more or less reiterating their limited bleeps-n’-loops musical apparatus over a punishing 16 tracks, their follow-up is sophomoric only in the sense that it, too, is self-obsessedly self-titled. Otherwise, the album is a pretty significant leap forward for the redolent electronic punk duo-cum-perpetual LATFH fodder. They’ve moved on from huffing paint thinner to farting in your mouth while you are sleeping. The differences are subtle, but the key advance made is one of generosity.
Which is not to say that they’ve given themselves a complete overhaul. Though the Atari blips are largely missing this time around, the retroactive (retro-passive?) synthetic sensualism and 13th-hour, fourth meal-fueled stamina are in full fettle. It’s just that this time they’re not juggling two game controllers at once. They’re too busy, judging by their softened song titles, gazing into the “Celestica” skies, spending one “Year of Silence,” baptizing “Doe Deer,” offering “Empathy” to those “Not In Love,” battling “Suffocation” and “Fainting Spells,” and getting a “Pap Smear” in “Vietnam.”
That last track marks one of the strongest and best departures from their earlier efforts; it’s a widescreen, temperamental, high-EQ journey into the sonic battleground, with a bassline that whirs like helicopter blades, tinkling synthesizer lines sprouting like lamentations, and chopping on Alice Glass’s vocals that, for once, suggests something more ominous than mere effect. Other highlights in gravitas include: “Violent Dreams,” whose airy Michael Mann atmospherics suggest Alan Braxe and Fred Falke’s ‘80s revivalism; “Not In Love,” which bittersweetly refuses to resolve the tension in its progressions, storing heartbreak in those chord clusters like squirrels hoard nuts; and “Year of Silence,” with reverberating kicks, call-and-response vocal lines, and an Italo-chic synth countermelody straight out of Legowelt’s “Congo Zombie,” pure grindhouse sophistication.
But with that sophistication comes a tradeoff. For as irritating and limited as their first album was in stretches, its driving intensity was undeniable. The whirring effects in “1991” were like every sound effect from Williams’s “Black Knight” console compressed into two incredibly jacked-up minutes. At its worst moments, the album still gave off the impression of trying to dance under duress. There was a through line of strain just waiting for synthesis. In contrast, the superior but occasionally milquetoast Crystal Castles: Book Two inadvertently underscores the pitfalls of maturity and liberation.