Monday, February 3, 2014

The Crystal Method - album review

The Crystal Method (TCM) first burst on to the scene with 1997's Vegas - a widely-acknowledged classic that still sounds fresh today despite electronica's general tendency to date pretty horribly.  For reference, this was around the time that certain media outlets were proclaiming the death of rock (again), that electronica would become the new rock, and so on, largely because The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were producing some great stuff.  And while those names are still around, names like Leftfield, Fluke, Underworld, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads are for the most part a distant memory. 

TCM have managed to not only survive, but to stay relevant - which is no mean feat.  Credit this to the ability of messrs Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland to push the boundaries and also to basically just try a whole range of stuff.  There have been remixes (highlights include their reworking of the Doors' Roadhouse Blues), the Community Service mix albums (which later evolved into a weekly - and consistently good - radio show), and soundtracks/soundtrack contribution (London, Almost Human, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bones, etc etc).  And of course there have been studio albums too, which have provided some of the best moments.  I'd never have picked them to collaborate with Kyuss/Vista Chino vocalist John Garcia but to this day, Born Too Slow remains as possibly my favourite Crystal Method track (ditto the Richard Patrick / Trip Like I Do combination).

This self-titled record is their 5th studio album and sees their sound continuing to evolve.  Opening track Emulator sets the tone with an up-front number that's clearly motivated more towards the dance floor than the headphones - stomping beats and pounding bass are the order here.  In fact, the album rides a similar vein for most of its first half.  Over It blends dubstep-influenced bass-drops and squelches with the vocals of Dia Frampton, whilst Sling the Decks, Jupiter Shift and 110 to the 101 all sound much like old-school TCM with the benefit of new school production and ideas.  The low point here is probably Storm the Castle, which would be a decent track if not for some fairly irritating vocal samples (which recall the Chemical Brothers' old habit of spoiling decent tracks by lobbing weird abrasive samples in).

The album's second half sees things deviate in a slightly more experimental direction, starting with Dosimeter - a collaboration with Nick Thayer, which certainly adopts his usual tendency towards tempo and dynamic shifts.  Following that is Grace, a collaboration with Leann Rimes which certainly earns a spot in the TCM pantheon of clever guest spots.  Rimes' soulful vocals ride a tight TCM groove, with glitchy off-kilter background synths creating just the right level of discord to add a real edge to the track.  Difference doesn't really offer anything interesting, but album closer After Hours certainly does, echoing the combination of groove and glitch employed earlier on Grace, again with great results and this time with a more psychedelic tinge.

The pre-order edition also came with 3 bonus tracks - 2 remixes that aren't anything to get excited about, and Lucian, a track that certainly is.  It's a driving, powerful number that marries TCM's electronic and cinematic elements perfectly - a huge soundscape with big beats and sci-fi synths, which is probably my favourite track on the album.

Overall The Crystal Method is a solid listen, but it falls into the same trap as most of TCM's albums in terms of having enough moments of brilliance (in this case Sling the Decks, Grace, After Hours and Lucian) to make you notice that that the rest of the album isn't always at the same level.  Perhaps that's a slightly harsh criticism in an era where most electronic artists are happy to push out singles and EPs rather than putting the effort into pulling together a whole album, and perhaps TCM have set a very high bar for themselves with much of their output.  Still, if they could produce a whole album like Lucian, that would be something to behold.

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