Crystal Castles vs Chiptunes

Edit (May 5, 08): Hey, it turns out Crystal Castles are thieving bastards and full of shit. Read more.

Crystal Castles Title

Crystal Castles is the latest buzz-making indie band to emerge out of Toronto, which has been a relative hotbed of cool independent (and post-independent) music. It’s a scene that has spawned the likes of MSTRKRFT, Holy Fuck and, before them, Death From Above 1979 and Broken Social Scene and the multitudes of artists connected to them in every conceivable way (like Feist.) The two-piece of Crystal Castles, instrumentalist Ethan Kath and vocalist Alice Glass, comes out blazing with fully armed synthesizers and their primary weapon of choice is a modded keyboard with an Atari 5200 chip in it. Yes, they’re basically creating Chiptunes.

I love chiptunes. It’s an aesthetic that has great modern and nostalgic appeal to me. The first music that I payed any attention to in my life was generated by an NES sound chip, and the last album that I listened to wasn’t very different. In the last five years I’ve been to two live shows: one was a friend’s band and the other featured bit shifter. So yes, it’s a sound I have a certain nerdy affinity to. I’m not the only one as it’s a thriving scene. There’s a countless number of artists, numerous labels, a full-on four day music festival (Report part 1, part 2) and even a documentary or two.

Crystal Castles in TorontoCrystal Castles in Toronto, courtesy of Charlyn.

Crystal Castles, whose sound I would describe as “The Knife if they were on 8-bit peoples, with a touch of Atari Teenage Riot“, doesn’t identify with that scene at all. Hell, their name isn’t a reference to the Atari videogame (as I first thought), it’s a reference to She-Ra. It’s not the world they came from. In an interview with Exclaim!, they say as much:

It was only to create annoying sounds. That keyboard was made back in 2004 and then we learned about this whole 8-bit scene, which we don’t really have anything to do with. It’s a completely different world.

That’s fine. That’s great. Music history isn’t a linear path; influence happens in parallel. The kids that grew up with the SID chips and the Atari and the NES, now in their twenties and thirties, all have personal experiences with that nostalgia and it will manifest itself in ways unique to them. It’s not synchronicity, it’s culture. What irks me about this isn’t the band, it’s the media writing about the band.

It’s not my intent to start a “my subculture is better than your subculture” pissing match — we’d lose, the indie army is far crazier and more numerous — but I hate how the oft ignored, under the radar and frequently dismissed 8-bit aesthetic that defined the chiptune world years and years ago is now seen as this great and novel innovation. It’s hyperbolic articles like this one that stir my shit. Attaching a classic game system sound chip to a keyboard makes for a totally unique and new sound? They are the most exciting and original band in the world right now? Really?

Fan-video for “xxzxcuzx me”.

Tracks like “xxzxcuzx me” and “Love and Caring” and “Alice Practice” have been described by some as “8-bit terror”. It’s mosh-pit music for the Nintendo generation and the crowd reactions to their performances reveal as much. Suburban ghetto music writes:

The pit was open and as the ferocious, asphyxiating sheets of warped two-dimensional Gameboy glitches washed over me I was inspired to run in, fists waving, until I was pushed out by three different people roughly twice my size. Usually I am one to shy away from the actual ‘moshing’ but repeatedly I was going for it, especially when killer track ‘Alice Practice’ came on.

That “killer track” is oft described by Crystal Castles as an “accident.” What’s even more telling is that they seem rather ambivalent to that glitchy sound. In interviews they say that they did it to be annoying:

We like to use sounds that annoy people. Especially in the earlier songs, like “xxzxcuzx me” — that was just to annoy everyone. It’s really strange when people tell us it’s their favourite song.

That annoying sound — the very same one that is getting all the praise for being “innovative” and “something completely new” — is the very same sound that has been previously derided as nerdy nostalgic noise with no musical value. Look no further than Paul Ford’s “Six-Word Reviews of 763 SXSW Mp3s” for proof of this dismissal. There are threefour chiptune artists on that list and they all have one circle ratings. Aonami is described as “8-bit gunk” and Receptors gets the snarky “Can they win the boss level?” treatment. If anything, it proves that reviewing music is no different than reviewing the last time you masturbated: immeasurably personal and subjective.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any value in that — there is — it just depends on the context that is brought to the review. Paul Ford dismisses Receptors as noise; I hear Kraftwerkian lo-fi bit-pop. That’s my experience with it, no doubt fueled by the knwoledge that the man behind Receptors is the man behind 8-bit Operators, the chiptune Kraftwerk cover album. An album that is notable for being published by a “mainstream” label, AstralWerks. And when he hears as “8-bit gunk”, I hear a head bopping mix of nostalgia and awesome.

It’s a matter of perspective. When those not familiar with that chiptune “8-bit terror” sound hear it coming from Crystal Castles, and they like it, they like it because it’s something new and fresh and innovative. For me, however, it’s a sound that I’m already intimate with. I enjoy it because I know it. I have a frame of reference to it. I know of other acts and performances and songs with which I can compare their aesthetic to. When I hear about the mosh-pits to songs like “Alice Practice” and “xxzxcuzx me”, as mentioned above, I think about this performance by Hally at the Blip Festival.

I find this Gradius-inspired tune and performance to be as good as anything produced by Crystal Castles.

As with everything else, it’s all been done before. David Sugar mixed nanoloop-powered Gameboy chiptunes with hip-hop over a year ago.
Beck did his thing three years ago with Ghettochip Malfunction on the Hell Yes EP. And Welle:Erdball have been doing it for over a decade. None of that matters though. Whether they’re seen as “innovative” or indie cool or as chiptune artists doesn’t change the fact that their music is fantastic. Their take on that 8-bit aesthetic is distinctly theirs. It’s personal. It’s good. It’s recommended. A fine addition to the chiptune canon.

Their debut self-titled album comes out this week.

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