Electronic Act Crystal Method Achieves Unprecedented Accessibility on Divided by Night
Vegas-born, L.A.-based Crystal Method always got pegged as a stateside answer to the Chemical Brothers. If that's the case, it took the duo more than a decade to duplicate the Brothers' formula: massively danceable, drugged-out epiphanies with loads of "very special guests." When Crystal Method started out in 1994, the partnership of Scott Kirkland and Ken Jordan ran primarily on synths, drum machines, and samples cribbed from films and funk records.
But duplicate it they have. The last two Crystal Method albums used the Chem Bros template, though the guests weren't as "special," and as demonstrated by last year's uncharacteristically diverse Divided by Night, that VIP list is hotter, which more than helps renovate the sound — it completely reboots it.
Though the duo now operates out of Crystal Works, its Los Angeles bunker/studio, its first album, 1997's Vegas, paid homage to a hometown Kirkland insists "was really not that cool." Jordan, who notes that none of their parents were involved in the gambling or entertainment industries, says the hippest thing about living in Las Vegas was "driving across the Hoover Dam."
Crystal Method's stomping, 4/4 workouts occasionally sound like monumental edifices, especially on its debut, which is still the biggest-selling item in its back catalog. Tweekend (2001) and Legion of Boom (2004) similarly relied on perfectly placed vocal snippets for their viability, though Boom showed an interest in using outside singers.
Kirkland points to a single concert, "Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, and Electronic here in L.A. on the Violator tour, which would have been summer of 1990," as his impetus to begin his own methodology with Jordan. The thumping metallic brittleness of those bands still shines through their songs, only now there's a recent trend toward pop accessibility.
In particular, the increased use of smooth, pseudo-ethereal female singers has moved the Method in that direction. There's toughness to the band's old sound that's now been buffed down. Online fan comments suggest that the increasingly commercial slant is a disappointment. Divided by Night's "Falling Hard," for instance, is a mawkish ballad voiced by someone named Meiko that could almost be from Zero 7.
By contrast, Justin Warfield's wife, Stefanie, singing on the pulsating "Black Rainbows" is a winning combination. The band's trademark blips and bleeps bounce from channel to channel with a chattering snare beat while Ms. Warfield's alternately mopey and breathless voice conjures up this nocturnal image: "She turned her head away, said 'everything is fine'/With a dark and empty heart, she danced with her head down, danced with her head down."
"We were working with Justin on another track," says Kirkland. "Stefanie was singing backup. We liked her voice so much — really liked it. We had no idea." After they gave her "Black Rainbows," Jordan adds, "she took the song in a different direction, genrewise. She really delivered and brought it home."
Her husband, who turns up on "Kling to the Wreckage," adds his gloomy baritone in a manner halfway between She Wants Revenge and his old hiptronica project, Bomb the Bass. The song's so gothy that it opens with the couplet, "This is a sad day: the saddest day we've ever known."
"We knew those Bomb the Bass records," says Kirkland, "but we had no idea he was living here or that he was even an American."
The most successful collaboration on Divided by Night isn't a vocal one, though. Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order infamy breaks out his high-necked Hooky bass leads to both "Dirty Thirty" and "Blunts and Robots." His unmistakable playing was improvised on the spot in the studio. "He came and played all day, told us stories," recalls Jordan. "Drinking stories."
"It was an honor, as well as a great deal of fun," says Kirkland. "It was all very freestyle, and his ability to come up with a melody that quickly — just amazing. He's a character, an English bloke you can have a beer with."
The other vocal-based team-ups are interesting — on paper, at least. Ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle whispers along with the industrialized bounce of "Slipstream," and LMFAO audibly enjoys the silliness of "Sine Language." Matisyahu brings the techno twinkle of "Drown in the Now" to a religious plateau, though, which veers far from old Crystal Method turf and even further from Matisyahu's rootsy work.
"We were both playing the same festival in Vancouver, on different stages," Jordan says of the Hasidic Jewish reggae singer. "He came and visited our trailer, and he chose our song 'High Roller,' and then he came out during our set and did this impromptu rap thing, just totally spur-of-the-moment. We stayed in touch, sent him an instrumental, and he recorded his vocals over it in New Jersey."
The track, which begins and ends with a wailing, desert-traveling chant, is the record's first single. Fans who miss the beam-shuddering beats and experimental feel of the older records can still locate them on the title track and "Double Down Under," where the hard-edged old-school party sounds like it never stopped rolling — literally.
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