Crystal Castles: Amnesty (I)

After a less-than-cordial breakup, the new iteration of Crystal Castles shows that the vocalist plays a major role in the sound of the band.
Crystal Castles
Amnesty (I)

As break-ups go, Crystal Castles’ was quick but with a slow-burning aftermath. In October 2014, singer Alice Glass announced that she was leaving the band for “professional and personal” reasons, marking the end of one of the most exciting duos the late 2000s and early 2010s had produced. Months went by and it seemed that that was that, the unfortunate end to an innovative pairing. But in April 2015, when a new Crystal Castles song was released, “Frail”. Producer Ethan Kath threw shade at Glass on Soundcloud reading, in part, “it should be rewarding for her considering she didn’t appear on Crystal Castles’ best known songs.” Understandably, Glass retaliated on Twitter, defending her contributions to the band ranging from the lyrics to vocal melodies and the band’s overall aesthetic. With a new record, Amnesty (I) announced, the question was obvious: How pronounced was Glass’ impact on the band? As the album proves, she played a massive role in the first iteration of the Crystal Castles aesthetic.

A core component of the Kath/Glass Crystal Castles lineup was that the abrasiveness of their best songs translated into equally raucous live shows. Glass especially was known for her willingness to overlook injury or danger in favor of putting on a truly visceral experience. They could be characterized as synthpop, sure, but so could Phoenix, and it’s difficult to see where the overlap between those two bands lies. On Amnesty (I), however, Kath’s production often veers towards a calming ambience even when new vocalist Edith Frances unleashes a haunting performance.

The album opens with “Femen”, a number whose greatest influence is simultaneously Clams Casino and the Soundcloud aesthetic that producers have been cultivating this decade. A lone ghostly vocal sample is looped and warped as trap hi-hats and a bass that pops in on occasion, providing an uplifting start for a band whose most notable songs have usually veered towards the destructive. This feeling doesn’t last long as the next song, “Fleece”, marks the first appearance of Frances on the album. She sings a single line over paranoid synths that, production-wise, harkens back to the first installment of Crystal Castles, but her vocals are notably less aggressive than Glass’. Instead, Kath works well with the new vocalist, molding the production to fit her style.

This is most pronounced on “Sadist”, a title that, for long-time Crystal Castles fans, would signal hope that it’d be yet another noisy masterpiece. The song moves away from what its title would suggest, focusing on a slow meshing of synths as Frances’ vocals fold themselves into the instrumentation. It’s one of the prettier compositions Kath has made, and at just under two-and-a-half minutes, it never overstays it welcome.

Amnesty (I)’s first half is strong, but the tricks seem to stop coming on the second half. It becomes a more-of-the-same experience, and while none of the songs are objectively bad, they simply act as a continuation of the sound developed on the first half. Save for closer “Their Kindness Is Charade”, which puts Frances front and center for nearly the whole song, this latter part of the album lacks the adrenaline-inducing moments that made Crystal Castles such a sought-after band and live show in the first place.

All in all, Amnesty (I) is a good album, but not an album that stacks up to the first three that Crystal Castles put out. Obviously things change when the lineup is different, and Kath clearly changed his production style a bit to accommodate what Frances brings to the table. Sometimes it worked, and other times it became monotonous. But it’s clear that the direction that the band is heading is one that moves away from in-your-face noise pop and more towards an experimental synth pop. At its best, this proves a smart move, and elsewhere, it just shows that albums need only be as long as they can remain interesting.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.