There are only a few different types of songs on Crystal Castles’ intermittently exciting self-titled debut. For fun, and in honor of the fact that the band’s unique sound is derived from a synthesizer into which they installed an Atari 5200 chip, let’s classify these song types with names that relate to some of modern teenagers’ favorite timewasters: Wii, Xbox, and Huffing Paint Thinner.
Songs in the key of Wii are chiefly defined by being stupid, simplistic, and incredibly fun. Tracks like “1991” and “Black Panther” cruise by quickly with minimal fuss and are pretty much exactly what you might want or expect from a band that actually tries to sound like a video game. There are a lot of ping-ponging keyboard melodies and stray laser beam noises, and lead singer Alice Glass’s vocals are often reduced to atmospheric background mumbles. Though this shtick is kind of juvenile, it’s also winning.
Songs belonging to the second category, like the stellar opener “Untrust Us” and “Magic Spells,” are much more sophisticated, and have conceptual underpinnings more complicated than “Wave ’em like you just don’t care.” They also tend to seem a little more expensive. Nevertheless, this platform lacks a killer app; although these tracks are accomplished, the best of the lot, “Vanished,” is essentially an excellent remix of the (better) song “Sex City” by Australian nü-wavers Van She. And “Magic Spells,” for all the woozy depth of its production, is about three minutes too long.
It’s difficult to say whether or not this album would be much better had the band limited themselves to just these two styles. Such a record might tend toward the soporific, whereas this one simply makes several loud, flow-disrupting mistakes. Remember, kids, Huffing Paint Thinner is always a bad idea. Songs in this category make one nostalgic for the soothing sounds of Atari Teenage Riot, whose name presaged Crystal Castles’ most zeitgeist-busting moments more than a decade ago. Imagine a video game console exploding in the face of a very peevish girl-punk at a happy hardcore party and you’re on the right track. Granting that “Alice Practice” and “XXZXCUZX Me” are perfect specimens of this kind of song, defined by as-always shiny production and audio shrapnel for days, they’re still quite irritating and certainly not good for one’s brain cells—even if you’re the type who enjoys the ranty screams of lead singers who cannot, strictly, sing.
Where the rest of the album trades in cheap-sounding and eccentric but still rather charming variations on punky dance-pop, Crystal Castles’ most rockist moments seem to wish to appear arty by being as annoying as possible. It’s a tricky maneuver, and the fact that the group doesn’t quite pull it off screws up the coherence of this otherwise strong record, but that doesn’t make them any less promising.