If the dead-eyed girl standing lifelessly in a graveyard on the album's cover isn't clue enough of the direction that Crystal Castles have taken on their second LP, the banshee shrieks that dominate the opening track will be. The Toronto indie-dance duo have chosen to infuse their latest release with a sense of gothic creepiness that's not for the fainthearted. Taking their name from the secret hideout of the fictional heroine She-Ra (He-Man's sister), the group emerged as MySpace royalty at the height of new rave with a huge international following. Their feral low-fi sound has always referenced the years that the members Ethan Kath and Alice Glass spent in Toronto's noise punk scene, but where Atari bleeps dominated their first (also self-titled) LP, this is full of murky synths and stalking beats. The opener Fainting Spells begins with washes of atmospheric distortion, then its vocals and drums double up into a homicidal pounding before ending with a trancelike murmur. The following track, Celestica, reverses direction completely, with a synth-pop rhythm and an uncharacteristically melodic vocal from Glass; the result sits somewhere between the Human League and M83. It's a new sound for the group, and thankfully not a one-off; the later tracks Suffocation and Empathy both boast a similarly shoegazey feel. It's obvious that Crystal Castles have not just bulked up their hard-edged material, but also mastered their lighter side. The song Baptism has an old school trance melody and is, at times, reminiscent of The Prodigy, but another striking vocal performance from Glass sets the tune apart from anything that's gone before. Year of Silence pulls off the unexpected by beginning with a sleazy baseline and sampling the angelically vocaled Icelanders Sigur Rós. The result is a glorious collision of innocence and corruption. Vietnam - presumably named for the helicopter-like synth that acts as the song's backbone - is loaded with the musical artefacts of 1970s cinema. There's the rhythm section that sounds like the score to a car chase and a chilling keyboard melody that could be borrowed from an Italian horror movie. It's an influence that also makes it on to the penultimate track Intimate. Crystal Castles have returned with a record that shows a clear statement of intent, executed in a way that is ghoulish and fantastical, but some might find themselves missing the nightmare 8-bit noise of the band's debut. While the group have demonstrated a greater breadth of ability than anyone previously though possible, there is something conspicuously inhuman about their music. They are capable of gunning out fist-shaking techno and majestic synth-pop, but it's difficult to be affected by anything they do on an emotional level. But just the opening two tracks prove that the group have evolved from simply attempting to replicate their kinetic, ragged-sounding live shows on record into bona fide recording artists.
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