A Yemeni woman holds her ailing son close to her chest. He has just been exposed to tear gas; she is wearing a full burqa. The bleary image that adorns the cover of (III) says a great deal about the third Crystal Castles LP in its harrowing simplicity. For this is an album that confronts the atrocities of war and religion and the fearful realities of gender and parenthood, trying to make sense of these external abhorrence, while also examining the threat we pose to ourselves and our attempts at cleansing ourselves of such ills. These are broad themes as stark as the sleeve’s black and white design, no doubt, but themes attacked by Alice Glass and Ethan Kath with bruising, sickening intensity.
Militant coercion runs rampant over opener ‘Plague’ – lines such as “infants in infantry, rewrite their history / Uproot their colony, you’re ripe for harvesting” actively assault innocence – while the excellent ‘Wrath of God’ notably characterises baptism as the sterilisation of memory and individuality, with Glass fervently attesting, “They’ll strip you of your heritage” throughout. Violence and forceful oppression define (III) as a lyrical entity, although Glass’ hatred is directed inwards as the album progresses. “Perfume in my blood / Nails grow through the glove, bruise my embryo,” she spits on ‘Insulin’, in clear disgust at how a poisonous culture could be imprinted on the unborn.
Furthermore, Glass contemplates chemical self-harm as a method of purification across (III) in the hopes of protecting the untainted, but for all its disturbing extremes, the imagery is pacified by the relative distance of Glass and the strain of manipulation her voice is constantly placed under. The power of her words is undermined and easily ignored, leaving Kath’s uneven synth work to take centre-stage.
Dual squealing and deeply wheezing synth lines effectively flank Glass’ echoed yelps on ‘Pale Flesh’, and the contrast of ‘Kerosene’s’ gargling bass against its skittish percussion works well, but examples of Kath’s progression as a producer are outnumbered by the ideas he lazily recycles. Where the thrashing house of ‘Sad Eyes’ is nicely reminiscent of (II) highlight ‘Baptism’, ‘Insulin’ is drowned out by Kath’s unruly tide of wallowing synths, unleashed in the misguided belief that noise would trump nuance — the unspoken mantra of the juvenile Crystal Castles debut.
Closer ‘Child, I Will Hurt You’, the album’s undoubted peak, chimes like a faraway ice-cream van, softly cradling all the wonderfully sweet and distracting qualities of that image. Glass’ drowsy vocals and Kath’s lurking keys entwine at the wayside, coming to a brief but enchanting ceasefire in acknowledgment of the sonic bloodshed that has taken place; it is the sound of Crystal Castles coming to peace with themselves and the unending toxicity of (III).