Crystal World [VINYL]
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Double vinyl, fourth side is an etching. August 1st, 2013, before this domestic vinyl was announced, Pitchfork said: "What's for all intents and purposes the sixth Ladytron album was conceived, funded, and released this year through Pledge Music to their least ado in years: there've been the standard lyric sheets and signed merch as well as shoes, a bikini, and even a 1998 Rover Cooper Mini Sport ("rust in usual areas") on offer, but almost no press. It's strange Crystal World is billed as Helen Marnie, Ladytron's lead vocalist, but between returning producer Daniel Hunt (as well as Keren Ann collaborator Bardi Johannsson) and the downcast synthscapes he creates, it'd be believable as a successor to 2011's relatively sedate Gravity the Seducer, which wasn't as zeitgeisty as Witching Hour but hardly obscure. It's a bit of a curiosity: an admitted pop move that makes no plays at a pop audience and that's mostly midtempo, like a Ladytron album composed entirely of their ballads. Even the title sounds closed off. What's striking is how even an album so insular in distribution and in sound, is nevertheless conversant with trends; a surprising number of boxes get checked. Single "The Hunter", the most Ladytron-like track here, is a rippling bit of Moroder by Hunt; if it weren't for the gentle lilt or Witching Hour melody of the chorus, it could be anyone's sequencer mania. Vaguely political "Sugarland" is the kind of 80s pop ballad with swooning backing vocals that everyone's trying to write this year, backed with the shoegazey guitars and synths they've tried to reproduce for longer. There's a slightly sullied chanson in "Violet Affair", a reverb-swept song named "Laura" about someone close enough to Laura Palmer (after a dye job here, but demise and affairs intact), a sprawling, M83-ish set closer in "Hearts on Fire" (which doesn't actually close Crystal World; the sequencing is a bit off).
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I am a big Ladytron fan, and heard just a one-minute snippet preview of the instrumental section from Submariner about 5-6 months before the release of this album. That one minute snippet gave me chills and I pre-ordered the album on Marnie's pledge music site, trusting that I would like what was eventually released. I loved it. If you are a Ladytron fan, you'll notice some differences lyrically and melodically, with less "grittiness" or distortion in the synths as "Velocifero"-era Ladytron, but it almost feels like a dreamier continuation of Ladytron's "Gravity the Seducer" album. Think "90 degrees" with multilayered melodies and soft, arpeggiated organs. But Helen Marnie's voice and vocal range is excellent on this album, making use of her trademark softness but showing her talents with melodies that are really engaging. There is a somewhat dark undertone to part of the album not unlike typical Ladytron tracks, but without Mira Aroyo and Reuben Wu, the darkness feels less aggressive, more subdued and more emotionally vulnerable, and comes out as a hint of sadness underlying some of the tracks, although one could say that the opener "The Hunter" and "Sugarland" are the closest we get to aggression on this album. All tracks stand on their own well, but there are some that stand out just a little more. "Hearts on Fire" is as close as you'll get to a summer anthem with Marnie, with the catchy chorus, but still retains a dreamy, oceanic feel. "Laura" is one of my favorites because it is so haunting. Marnie layers her voice throughout and evokes a sense of mourning in the chorus, hinting at the disappearance and possible violent death of this mystery woman. In "Gold," perfect ending to the album, it's hard to tell if the words are about a love that has died or a love that still burns, but either way the lyrics evoke sadness. The lyrics "softly now, reach out and make your pillow in my chest," get me every time. But without question, the masterpiece on this album is "Submariner." Almost 8 minutes of immersion into the ocean depths via Marnie's amazing musical layering on this track. I enjoy the first minutes of the song in which she sings, but my favorite part is when her voice gives way half way through to melody and countermelodies layered beautifully (at times 3-4 melodies at once, with the main melody being a synth/filtered form of bells) that make me feel like I have been transported to another world, a world that is an endless beach and smells of salt, where I feel the sun on my face and the breeze on my skin. You can almost picture coastal Iceland where she recorded the album. In sum, the whole album has a dreamy, subdued quality that really does feel like the ocean, part of Marnie's inspiration for the album. The melodies are arpeggiated often, which adds to the dreaminess. There's also a hint of sentimentality of a bygone era. I typically pick and choose which Ladytron tracks I listen to, but Marnie's solo effort has no lackluster songs. In sum, this album is dreamy, a little haunting, and very well-made.
You will not be disappointed, Ladytron fan or not. It is an amazing work of artistry.
I for one absolutely love it...I've just played it twice right through and when I got to the end I still wanted to hear more. And there aren't many current albums I can say that about!
Being a fan of electronica I don't have a lot to rave over these days(Karl Bartos, OMD and Pet Shop Boys new albums apart) so 'Crystal World' is a more than welcome arrival.
Opener 'The Hunter' sets the mood straight away and is typically catchy yet somehow melancholic...perhaps we could call this melantronica?
'Hearts On Fire' is in a similar vein though Track 4 'Violet Affair' has a kind of 60s/70s beat.
Two tracks later we have 'Sugarland' with its wonderfully 'wonky synth' vibe running through it, followed by 'High Road', which to my ears sounds like a John Barry film-score at times despite being lyrically inferior to the majority of tracks.
'Laura' is cloaked in a much darker veil, though still manages to feature seaside organ sounding synths.
Brace yourselves now though as Track 9 is the impossible to put down 'Submariner' which is a bright and breezy up tempo number (with added melancholy for good measure). What sets it apart however is the utterly brilliant synth melody that makes its entry at the beginning only to reappear in all its glory to completely take over the final three and a half minutes...clearly Marnie and her cohorts loved it as much as I do and didn't want it to stop!
Then we have the final offering 'Gold'...quite simply a beautifully orchestrated song with a piano and synths providing a perfect backdrop for that Marnie voice to truly shine...oh! and it's all wrapped up by a lovely little melancholic synth outro.
Can't wait for the next one!
Co-produced with Daniel Hunt also from Ladytron, it's inevitable that people with be looking for comparisons. There are odd flashes of Ladytron in there, but ultimately Marnie brings a more human warmth to the material. It may take a few listens, but once you fall into the different emotional and musical layers in this record, you almost forget that this is an electro album. At times it's almost orchestral.
Opener "The Hunter" is perhaps the most 'tron-like, and has a menacing edge, but even then it still has a less detached air than most Ladytron songs. The opening bars of Marnie's ghostly voice echoing over a building electro-pulsing beat is breathtaking as a statement of intent. This is definitely an album to listen to properly to discover its depths (listening to the tracks on YouTube through your phone just does not do it justice).
Natural themes recur including the ocean metaphors of two of the most beautiful tracks, "We Are The Sea" and "Submariner". The first has gorgeous harmonies in a catchy chorus while the latter is an epic, beautiful track that sweeps you away, especially the instrumental second half. "Laura" is a brooding, haunting piece that grows and grows. "Violet Affair" has a great 60s girl-pop psychedelic air, and closing track "Gold" is a bittersweet sunset of memories that washes over you.
This is a striking and coherent album and I hope it elevates recognition of Marnie as a musician and songwriter in her own right and more than simply the face of a band. Majestic.
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