Crystal Castles was never exactly a groundbreaking force in the whole 8-bit, chiptune, whatever-you-want-to-call-it genre they emerged from. What made vocalist Alice Glass and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath's take on it so exciting was the energy, the pop sensibilities, and attitude they brought to the proverbial table. It wasn't wholly original, but they had some interesting ideas, and it didn't hurt that Glass is so easy on the eyes, either. On their sophomore effort, which is a self titled one like their first (they're too cool to title their albums, man), they downplay the glitchy bleeps a bit to flesh out their sound a bit more, and it pays off wonderfully.
The widened scope of their sound is displayed perfectly with the first two tracks. Fainting Spells opens up Crystal Castles' second self titled album with an ungodly, ear piercing cacophony that rages on for two minutes before some semblance of an actual beat appears. It comes together nicely, but then abruptly ends, with gloomy dancefloor-friendly single Celestica picking up nearly exactly where it leaves off. Celestica, like the lion's share of the tracks, has a sweet dreaminess to it that could almost sound warm, if not for the icy, robotic production. A lot of this is due to how good Kath is with applying effects to Glass' voice; he enhances her already alternately sweet and vicious voice by either smothering it with echo or drowning it with distortion, getting the maximum result from each extremity. Then there are songs (particularly the pair of Violent Dreams and Vietnam) where the tweaking is something else altogether, in the same vein as the weirder vocal moments from the debut, but pushed a bit more, even resembling that of the Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson at times. Another great quality of Kath's production that we're reminded of is his impeccable taste in samples, as demonstrated by Year of Silence's throbbing, fuzzy bass and synth topped over by a disorienting loop of Sigur Rós' Jónsi Birgisson singing.
The fact that Crystal Castles have branched out as well as they have is quite impressive, especially considering how gimmicky their nintendo bleep centered debut could come across at times. Crystal Castles are by turns blistering and beautiful here, and are at times even able to pull off both simultaneously (like on the utterly brilliant Baptism). There isn't as cohesive a feel as on their debut, but that's to be expected when experimenting this broadly with a base sound. Besides, even at the most disjointed moments (the harsh Doe Deer and Birds come to mind), everything is very well constructed, and the songs are able to blend in with the rest of the album at least on the grounds that they share a disorienting and cold quality found just about everywhere else.
There really isn't much to complain about with Crystal Castles' second (self titled) album. The impressive broadening of their sound finds the duo less reliant on fashionably low res electronics, getting better ideas, and putting them to better use. In a way, this is a very relieving album; it shows the duo growing from something potentially campy into something more full bodied and listenable, and it's easy to see this set of songs standing alongside the year's best. Expect to hear this disc getting a lot of rotation in hipster clothing stores before the summer even begins.