Crystal Castles' self-titled debut helped take 8-bit synth tones into the mainstream. That jagged, strangely naïve sound of old-school video games is so distinctive that it could easily define the duo’s music instead of vice versa, but Ethan Kath and Alice Glass avoid that trap on their second, also self-titled album. Glass and Kath are still committed to the 8-bit assaults of their early singles and debut -- check the bookending blasts “Fainting Spells” and “I Am Made of Chalk” for proof -- but Crystal Castles covers more territory than that. The duo finds different ways to mix icy synth pop with white-hot noise, as well as present them in an ever so slightly more polished form. Two of the album’s singles show just how Crystal Castles' sound has evolved: “Doe Deer” is even harsher, more thoroughly spindled and mutilated than “Alice Practice,” yet the melody shines through underneath all the pixelated distortion; “Celestica,” meanwhile, puts the focus on Glass' decidedly clear, melancholy vocals and the four-on-the-floor beat. Though 8-bit synths aren’t as prominent here as they were on the band’s earlier work, Crystal Castles still love repurposing seemingly obsolete and unfashionable sounds: “Baptism”'s brassy blasts hark back to at least the early ‘90s. Despite tangents like “Birds,” Crystal Castles overall has a much darker and cleaner sound than its predecessor, expanding on the softer, more esoteric territory the band ventured into on the debut’s second half. “Vietnam” and “Pap Smear” pair controversial titles with unabashedly pretty and brooding songs. If anything, this album shows that Crystal Castles are a pop band at heart, albeit an extremely warped one, and their sonic tricks work best when harnessed to honest-to-goodness songs. “Empathy” adds R&B-tinged beats to Glass’ far-off singing, while “Suffocation” and “Not in Love” still sparkle like pristine synth pop should, even if they sound like they’ve been put through a shredder. The second Crystal Castles may not be as immediate as their debut, but it shows that the band has more to offer than just a distinctive -- and confining -- sound.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares