Growing as a group, especially when that growth is angled toward the nebulous notion of maturity, can be a tricky business. For Crystal Castles, growth involves a shift away from the manic density of their early material, manifested by recording the songs on III live in single takes, ditching much of the synths and loops, and capturing everything on analog tape. More directly, this means replacing their distinctive, pinball-hectic 8-bit sound with something more simple and direct, resulting in an album that prizes carefully structured clarity over furious torrents of chunky digital noise.
The problem is that, at least in this case, clarity is boring. III is an album of earnest, expansive electronica from a duo few are expecting such sincerity from, and it edges them directly into the middle of the road. As infuriating and exhausting as they could be on their first and second efforts, the complete lack of provocation here is much more depressing. Crystal Castles’ core tension, between the inherently gentle warmth of nostalgic sound effects and the punishing grind in which they were presented, has largely vanished, along with the duo’s propensity for letting loose like an over-shaken bottle of soda; here nothing emerges with much urgency, because the mixture has gone flat.
Basically, Crystal Castles have misjudged their appeal, which was in no way rooted in their ability to craft cleanly effective dance soundscapes. The shift from a direct fetishization of the past (via a frenzied mélange of recycled trigger sounds) to an indirect one (recording everything on obsolete devices) indicates a search for some greater verisimilitude, but it forgets the nasty, chockablock ruthlessness that made them interesting in the first place. More importantly, it’s resulted in a dreary equalization of their aesthetic, one which not only removes most of its distinguishing characteristics, but kills the fun spot-the-sound-effect guessing game of their first two albums. Fittingly, one of the few recognizable noises here is the coin-splash audio effect from the Sonic the Hedgehog games on “Wrath of God,” a sound that connotes complete vulnerability.
The continued ascent of the laptop as the primary instrument in modern music has made bedroom electronica a hopelessly crowded field, which means that an act like Crystal Castles scrapping their most recognizable elements for a flat, generalized approach probably isn’t the wisest decision. The attempts here to compensate through size only inflect an environment of sameness, with every song pitched at the back of the room, equipped with an identical whisper-to-roar structure, building across long swaths of squelching repetition. Songs like “Sad Eyes” and “Telepath” may vary in their surface sounds and tempos, but they have the same air of canned deadness, something which has always been a factor in the band’s music, but until now was obscured by the hyper nature of the three-ring-circus proceedings. In striving for something new, the duo has only found a more recognizable sort of tedium.