Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles seem to have appeared pretty much out of nowhere a decade ago with their eponymous debut album. There were no hit singles, despite a few attempts and a minor UK indie hit, and yet this remains their best selling album in the UK. Despite the duo’s turmoil in recent years, let’s try to give the album a fair listen and see where it takes us.

It opens with Untrust Us, a gloriously discordant piece of electro which bobs along very pleasantly until suddenly turning into a heavy rock track for about a second at the end. Alice Practice is next, the bizarre shouty chiptune piece that actually had a hand in launching Crystal Castles‘ career in 2006 when it was leaked online and released as a 7″ single.

Crimewave is next, the first of their proper singles in 2007, released as a collaboration with Health. This is probably the most conventional of the early tracks on this album, which is not to say there’s anything wrong with it, just that it’s a little more accessible than some of its neighbours.

Of course, now, the story of early Crystal Castles is marred by their 2014 breakup and the shocking allegations of abuse that vocalist Alice Glass has made against instrumentalist Ethan Kath. It’s impossible to listen to this album now without being distracted by what might have been happening at the time, but it’s also difficult to know what to make of what’s been said and how to address it here. Ultimately, I suspect Glass would want her fans to still enjoy the music, but it must be fraught with conflict for her.

Magic Spells is the mellowest track so far, an instrumental electro piece with pleasant backing. Then XXZXCUZX Me, originally released as the b-side to Crimewave, is another gloriously noisy piece of chiptune. Then comes the third single Air War, a brilliantly chirpy electro track full of obscure vocal samples and 8-bit squawks. Courtship Dating and Good Time tread forward in a gentler fashion, seemingly with a few slight steps of awkwardness.

Next is another instrumental, 1991, a pleasant, short, and simple piece, and then fourth single Vanished is next, a simple track with a driving LFO bass line that sounds like something Ladytron might have produced. Knights is a pained piece which flips schizophrenically between pleasant synth lines and noisy electro. Love and Caring continues the noisy theme, as does Through the Hosiery, but Reckless is probably my favourite track on here – its rich, deep synth lines bounce along gloriously and it’s cleverly catchy.

At times, listening to this album is like being in a vicious, dark computer game, and Black Panther is one of the finest examples of this – it’s grimy, catchy, and almost dreamlike. Then this debut album closes with Tell Me What to Swallow, a short piece full of flanged acoustic guitar and whispering. It’s a sweet closing track to a turbulent album.

Crystal Castles, sometimes called (I) celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, at a difficult time in its history, with the former bandmates with a lot of unfinished business to resolve. But whatever was going on during this period, they leave behind at least three very good albums (I haven’t yet heard the fourth) and this was where it all began.

You can find Crystal Castles at all major retailers. As always, please use the form below or feel free to contact me privately if you wish to discuss this article.


Moby – Last Night

By 2008, it’s fair to say that Moby had re-entered the underground. His 2005 album Hotel had sold well and had advanced his sound rather more than 2002’s 18, but it also saw the last of his singles, so for his eighth album, he returned very much to the dance sound where he began.

He also embraced some very retro sounds – opening track and final single Ooh Yeah is a brilliantly 1980s-themed piece, which wouldn’t have sounded entirely out of place way back at the start of Moby‘s career. Then the penultimate single I Like to Move in Here is built around an early 1990s piano riff with a gloriously dirty vocal sample that includes crowd noises and other source sounds. This is Moby finally throwing off the shackles of Play by returning to his roots and showing us just how great they were. is next, more of an instrumental piece apart from the whimsical vocal samples, and then we get the unashamedly rave Everyday It’s 1989. A couple of decades late, it may not all be entirely brilliant, but at least it’s all fun.

The mellower Moby wasn’t entirely on hold, though – Live for Tomorrow may have a huge pulsating arpeggio driving it forwards, but it could have easily fitted on Play or 18. It’s a lovely track though, particularly when it really wakes up for the middle section.

Moby has always drifted between a few different styles of music, but hip hop rarely seemed to reach the forefront until Alice, released as a single just before the album came out ten years ago. The good thing with this is that it helps give this album a varied sound, but that could also come at the price of alienating the sort of people who normally buy his music, and I suspect that might have happened here. Alice isn’t too great, bluntly. Who the f*** is Alice, anyway?

In general, actually, I suspect I liked this album a lot more a decade ago than I do now – Hyenas isn’t really anything special either. I’m in Love is a lot better, with a great vocal and some brilliant percussion. Then comes the lead single Disco Lies, which isn’t entirely brilliant either, although the chorus holds it together nicely.

Broadly, though, by this stage in the album, we’re definitely back to things that I remember liking a lot more before now – The Stars isn’t great, and Degenerates is pleasant but dull, so Sweet Apocalypse and Mothers of the Night offer a slight lift, but nothing astonishing.

Things do appear to be improving towards the end though – closing track Last Night is very sweet, and its hidden bonus track (apparently entitled Lucy Vida) is a pleasant way to drift away from this album.

But some releases age better than others, and I’m sorry to report that Last Night doesn’t quite seem to have the power in 2018 than it had a decade ago. Moby definitely still had it, but maybe not quite as much of it as he used to have.

You can still find Last Night at all major retailers.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Dazzle Ships

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark‘s career had barely started thirty-five years ago, but they already had four albums under their belt. The most recent, Dazzle Ships, again owed much to their heroes Kraftwerk, but this time it was more overt than ever.

In a clear attempt to drop the shackles of commercialism, it opens with Radio Prague, an interval signal lifted directly from the radio station of the same name. I’d be interested to know how they felt about it. We then get the first single from the album, Genetic Engineering, the second and most prominent of the twelve tracks, very clearly mimicking the structure of the Radio-Aktivität album. That’s not the limit of the homage – Genetic Engineering is good, but does sound at times a little like a bad Kraftwerk rip-off. But let’s keep this civil – it’s a competent single, even if not perhaps the most commercial – it was even missed off the 1998 singles collection.

OMD were trying to be experimental, although at the same time they do owe a lot to their heroes Kraftwerk on this album. ABC Auto-Industry is built around samples and found sounds, and is a clear attempt to do something very different, but frankly it’s awful at best.

Telegraph was the second single, not quite making the top forty in April 1983. It’s a good song, probably as commercial as anything on here, but it certainly doesn’t sound as advanced as anything else the group had released recently – it might have even fitted well on the debut album.

After some of the earlier shorter tracks, This is Helena is a vast improvement, and for the first time does seem to do justice to the stark communist radio theme of this album. International is pretty pleasant too, with its throbbing bass sounds, although the vocal performance is off-putting to say the least.

Half way through the album, and this might actually be one of OMD‘s most coherent releases to date – the debut is fun but naïve, the second has Enola Gay on it and little else, and the third is mainly about Joan of Arc, for reasons that are unlikely to ever become clear.

Side two opens with the cryptic Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III and VII), which would have been a good b-side on a single and just about works here. Then The Romance of the Telescope is a nice piece that drones along pleasantly for a bit. This is definitely the low-point of the album – there’s nothing particularly wrong with Silent Running either, but it doesn’t exactly stand out from the crowd.

Radio Waves features some creative use of random synth signals and off-beat drumming, but generally seems to work, particularly when the main song starts up about a minute in. Time Zones is nice, although it’s basically a direct imitation of Kraftwerk‘s Nachrichten. And then we’re on to Of All the Things We’ve Made already, the final track. Previously released in different form a year or so earlier, on the b-side to Maid of Orleans (that one was about Joan of Arc, in case you were wondering), it might even be the best track on here. Admittedly, the drums sound a bit moronic, and the flanged guitar that strums the same key through pretty much the entire track, but it’s got a compelling atmosphere which actually fits here rather well.

So as with all OMD albums, Dazzle Ships has its ups and downs, and it was definitely widely hated at the time, but it’s actually a pretty good album, particularly if you’re as much of a fan of Radio-Aktivität as they are. What it doesn’t have is anything as good as Enola Gay, but you would need to wait another couple of albums for them to regain that form.

The 2008 remaster of Dazzle Ships is probably the essential version if you want to try for yourself.

New Order – Blue Monday

This week, 35 years ago, saw the release of possibly the most iconic dance single of all time. There’s really no other way to describe Blue Monday by New Order – the original 12″ single drifted in and out of the UK charts for nearly three years, clocking an astonishing 39 weeks on the Top 75, and nearly double that on the now-official Top 100, and that’s without even counting the later reissues.

Of course, it’s hard to know now whether you just recognise the kick drum immediately because you’ve heard it so many times, or because it really is unique, but even if you don’t know that early 1980s clicky beat, you definitely know the pattern it plays. What started out as an experiment with a drum machine quickly turned into an astonishing seven-minute deep and dark dance odyssey. Nothing remotely like this had ever been heard before, and so it is entirely proper that this became the best selling 12″ single of all time.

What’s perhaps more surprising is where this came from. By 1983, New Order seemed to have firmly thrown off any vestiges of the dark places where they had started, but actually this was only their fifth UK single, and of those, most newcomers to the band will probably have only come across Temptation. So despite appearing a couple of years into their career, this was still very much early days for New Order.

It’s worth a mention for Peter Saville‘s exquisite artwork. You probably won’t have come across the original die-cut version, although it’s not hugely uncommon, but basically the whole thing is designed to look like a 5¼ inch floppy disc, with an ingenious colour-coding system down the edge that spells out the artist, title, and catalogue number.

Then on Side B you get The Beach, arguably just a dub mix of Blue Monday, but one which pulls it apart entirely and takes the track in very different directions. Right from the start, the haunting choir pad sound opens the track this time, and reappears throughout the track with sudden appearances as other parts of Blue Monday break in and out. Honestly it’s rare that I enjoy dubs as much as this – it’s truly brilliant. But of course that may just be due to how good the original track is.

New Order were not in the habit of putting singles onto albums, and would not be for another couple of years, meaning that Power, Corruption and Lieslove it or hate it, really is all the weaker for not having Blue Monday on it. Or maybe not – for the US versions, each side of the single was clumsily shoehorned onto the end of each side of the album, which I can’t help but think the band were probably never too happy about.

A good place to find this single in its entirety is on the compilation Substance, which is still widely available.

Saint Etienne – So Tough

Their debut album Foxbase Alpha had made a reasonable dent on the charts in late 1991 thanks to the memorable but minor hit Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and Saint Etienne had started to gain a reputation as one of the more creative forces in popular music. Second album So Tough is a pop concept album about growing up, which is such an unusual thing that it’s definitely worth a listen.

The album takes its name from a late Beach Boys album, Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”, the first track of which also provided the title of the compilation You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone, which followed later the same year.

It opens with Mario’s Cafe, which for those of you like me who can’t place exactly which song that is, it’s the one that goes “When we leave for work / Tuesday morning 10am”. It’s a pleasant pop song with just a hint at the start of the experimental sounds and samples that had stylised their debut album.

This album appeared in 1993, fifteen years ago this week, and by then, Sarah Cracknell had become a fully-fledged member. But there was still space for the pleasant instrumentals that had made up so much of the first release, so Railway Jam is an entirely appropriate inclusion at this point.

There are a few miniature breaks on here, of which Date with Spelman is the first, and then occasional collaborator Q-Tee turns up to rap on Calico, a pleasant but somewhat forgettable foray into hip hop. Then comes the glorious Avenue, released as a seven-minute single in late 1992. This was actually the opening single for this album, which may seem a little surprising until you find yourself a couple of minutes into the track, utterly captivated by it.

Then comes the huge hit single You’re in a Bad Way, which peaked at number 12 just before the album came out. While the single was augmented by samples from Brighton Rock, the album goes for the brilliant “Lose himself in London” quote from Billy Liar. It’s a great song, wonderfully catchy and with a splendid 1960s backing track, although it is just a little disappointing that the album version isn’t quite as good as the single release.

Memo to Pricey carries us through to the adorable Hobart Paving, the adorable suburban piano piece that appeared as half of a double a-side with Who Do You Think You Are as the third single from this album, and performed well on the charts.

This isn’t really Saint Etienne‘s finest work though – Leafhound is pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly go anywhere, and the chord changes seem a bit forced. Clock Milk and Conchita Martinez follow, and while you can absolutely see how they fit in with the narrative of the album, they don’t exactly stand well on their own. So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that this album, buoyed by its great singles, is actually the group’s highest-charting, having peaked at number 7.

There isn’t a huge amount left here, truth be told. No Rainbows for Me is nice, but dull to say the least. Then there’s another interlude track, Here Comes Clown Feet, and the dancey closing piece Junk the Morgue, and the album is rounded out with one last mini-track, Chicken Soup. It’s probably fair to say that things tail off a bit towards the end.

But if you take a bigger picture view, and see So Tough as the second step in Saint Etienne‘s growth as a group, which sees them starting to reach maturity over the next couple of albums, this is a strong step – the three great singles and its chart performance are definitely testament to that. It might not be the best album when you listen to it on its own, but it’s certainly an important album.

If you can, try to track down the double CD deluxe version of So Tough, which appears to still be available at the time of writing.

Bent – The Everlasting Blink

Fifteen years ago this week, the brilliant Bent released their second proper album The Everlasting Blink, which took the charts by gentle nudge in early 2003. Since they’re definitely one of your favourite Nottingham-based chillout electronica acts, this seems a worthwhile anniversary to celebrate.

It had been a couple of years since the minor success of debut Programmed to Love, but relatively little seemed to have changed in Bent‘s world, and they were still able to craft beautiful, elegant chillout music, as the lovely opening track King Wisp ably demonstrates. But nothing is ever quite what it seems, as Mozart makes an appearance in this track.

Next is the adorable An Ordinary Day, full of analogue chirps and built around a vocal by Lena Martell, it’s really rather brilliant. This was, of course, the same year that Röyksopp‘s Melody AM broke the charts, and there are definitely certain commonalities between the two albums. This one did not, unfortunately, sell quite as well, but it’s every bit as accomplished.

Next is a Nana Mouskouri sample for the equally adorable Strictly Bongo, which carries the album gently onwards. But track four is the big surprise, and as I recall this was the reason I started listening to Bent in the first place. I was in a little independent record shop (remember them?) just browsing, and suddenly I heard the voice of one of my favourite singers, Jon Marsh of The Beloved. Knowing that they hadn’t released anything new for several years, I was intrigued. I asked the shop assistant what it was, and bought the album then and there.

The thing with Beautiful Otherness isn’t that it was Jon Marsh‘s first vocal performance for a number of years, though – it’s that it’s absolutely fantastic. The rippling piano, drifting lyrics, and generally perfect mood are what set this track apart. I never realised until researching this that Stephen Hague had a hand in it too, which of course helps. It deserved to be a huge hit single, but that was never to be.

After that, anything was going to be a bit anticlimactic, and sure enough, there isn’t really anything wrong with Moonbeams – it’s very pleasant, in fact, with its pedal steel guitar work – but it does suffer by not quite being Beautiful OthernessToo Long Without You gets closer, as it cleverly samples two different songs by Billie Jo Spears, and works very nicely indeed.

Exercise 3 is joyful and fun, if a little silly, and then we get the first of the two singles, Stay the Same, which was actually Bent‘s biggest hit, peaking at number 59 in July 2003, although unfortunately with a vastly inferior single version. It’s a beautiful song, drawing heavily on a David Essex song from 1974, but rather than sticking to his original slightly naff country delivery, it’s been stripped, re-timed, and turned into a great pop vocal. Clever stuff.

Magic Love was the second single, another beautiful track built around something much older, and then we get the gentle title track The Everlasting Blink, with a bit more pedal steel guitar on it. Then the last track is the short Thick Ear, closing the album sweetly and softly.

Except that isn’t the end – here, Bent bring us not one, not two, but three bonus tracks – 12 Bar Fire BluesWendy, and Day-Care Partyline, none of which were ever going to completely  change your world, but it’s nice to have them on here anyway to round things out.

The Everlasting Blink is a great second album, with a number of exquisite songs – but what happened next was better still – the follow-up, Aerials, which appeared the following year, is by far Bent‘s finest hour.

You can still find The Everlasting Blink at all major music retailers.

Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree

It’s always a bit of a shock when seemingly new things turn up to celebrate their birthday. Goldfrapp‘s fourth album Seventh Tree is ten years old already – how on earth did that happen?

Having gradually appeared out of nowhere with Felt Mountain (2000), Goldfrapp had reinvented glam electronica with Black Cherry in 2003, and after a couple of years of fighting to break the charts, finally made it with Supernature in 2005. Having made it to the big time, Seventh Tree should have been hard work, but it just sounds so effortless.

It opens with Clowns, a beautifully forested track which was probably recorded in the middle of a wood. It turned up as the fourth single, as a somewhat mundane two-track release backed with an alternative version of Happiness, but it’s a lovely song.

Little Bird is next, another sweet track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the 1960s. Listening now, it’s delightfully analogue after the dark glam of the previous couple of albums, but admittedly it came as a bit of a shock at the time.

Happiness is by far the best track on here, the second single, and while that release would absolutely have been better if Rex the Dog‘s version had made it on, the bouncy video does make up for that. But bluntly, Goldfrapp singles tend to seem a bit thrown together, and so in traditional form, that video actually appears on the Caravan Girl single that followed. All of that aside, this is absolutely one of Goldfrapp‘s finest singles and a standout track – probably the standout track – on this album.

Road to Somewhere is nice, as is Eat Yourself, particularly with the cello work on both of them, but neither is quite up to the high standard set by Happiness. Then Some People is probably the low point on here – I’d be very surprised if you remember it a couple of hours after listening.

Lead single A&E is next, a perplexing choice as opening single, but a pleasant spring-like country song. The semi-orchestral funk of Cologne Cerrone Houdini does fit nicely here though. The bridge hints at some of the warm magic of Felt Mountain, and the chorus is wonderfully catchy.

The third single was Caravan Girl, and that turns up as penultimate track, full of gusto. It’s a good song, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem to deliver after a very promising build through each verse and bridge. Then finally, Monster Love is a sweet and enormous piece full of rippling synths and choral effects. It’s a good closer to a generally strong album.

Four albums in, Goldfrapp had confidently demonstrated an ability to make sweet and lush alpine pop, glam electro, and now orchestral semi-electronic country. Next stop? The 1980s, obviously. But that’s another review for another time.

You can still find Seventh Tree at major retailers.