There are many legitimate reasons to hate Crystal Castles. Their album cover, for one, looks like a damn American Apparel ad; it's hard to imagine any imagery that more blatantly screams out "hipster shite". Chiptune purists revile them for being misrepresentative and disrespectful of the chiptune scene, which the band has admitted they were unaware of when they first started creating music. There's also been recent accusations of the band plagiarizing: the "Madonna with a black eye" artwork on their t-shirts and in the CD artwork was supposedly used without permission (even though the artist is clearly credited in the CD's liner notes), and there's been a few claims that their songs blatantly sample music by chiptune producers without credit, despite the band claiming zero affinity with the chiptune scene. Obviously, you can read up on the details online, because I don't feel the need to discuss them in this review.
The reason I'm even bothering to review the album now, two months after it came out (far longer than I assumed its shelf life would be), is that I'm still listening to it regularly. Regardless of the origins of these songs, they're extremely addictive. Strictly taking them for their musical value, I think their songs are fun, enjoyable, perhaps a bit annoying at times, but ultimately unique and doing something different than everything else out there. For all the controversy over their alleged uncredited sampling on one of their unreleased demos (which they actually are attempting to clear up before the song actually gets released), the album's liner notes credit which songs they're sampling and/or remixing, and their recontextualization of their source material is actually quite stunning. Their remix of HEALTH's "Crimewave" easily trumps the original, turning a drum-heavy SY-esque noise burst into a stuttery, blippy electro jam that's easily one of my favorite tracks in recent memory. The following track, "Magic Spells", basically sounds like the music for a non-action part of a role playing game (when you're just walking around in a forest or something) extended for perhaps a few minutes too long, but it contains a chopped up sample of the synth line from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" that I didn't even recognize the first dozen or so times I heard it. Definitely a creative example of sampling. Best of all, however, is "Vanished", which transforms a track by The Van She (who were lumped in with the brief "nu-rave" hype from last year, and who I'd pretty much forgotten about) from what originally sounded like a Duran Duran B-side, into a breathtaking dance track, with a haunting synth melody and chugging bassline. This is basically one of those tracks that electroclash should've sounded like, but instead we got tons of watered down crap and the scene justifiably crapped out.
Besides their remix/sample tracks, the band has a few more tricks up their sleeve. They certainly get good mileage out of their Atari chip keyboards, using the familiar 8-bit glitch/fuzz noises in many of their tracks. But it's how they they combine these sounds with techno beats, buzzing electro bass, early '90s Warp bleeps and bloops, and punky screamed vocals, into killer dance tracks, that really set them apart from mere '80s/'90s nostalgia. On top of all that, the final track on the album, "Tell Me What To Swallow", sounds EXACTLY like This Mortal Coil. It's almost disarming to hear such a perfect imitation of vintage 4AD after the previous 15 tracks, and it's a little infuriating that none of their other stuff is like that. At least on the album, anyway.
I have utmost respect for the chiptune community, and I'm not going to take sides here. I love what the 8bitpeoples and Micromusic communities have been doing since the late '90s, and obviously what the demoscene has been doing for decades before that, and I appreciate what Crystal Castles do as well. They're not part of the scene, and they don't need to be. They're doing something else, and I for one think it's exciting. 8/10 -- Paul Simpson (13 May, 2008)