Review: Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)

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Typically when one person leaves a musical duo, you’d expect that to be the end of the band. After all, it’s hard to imagine the White Stripes without either Meg or Jack, Death From Above 1979 without Sebastian Grainger’s vocals or Jesse Keeler’s trademark distorted bass, or Flight of the Conchords without Bret or Jemaine. Therefore, when Crystal Castles vocalist Alice Glass announced her departure from the band in 2014, many thought it was the end of the band – Glass included. After all, this just left synthesizer player and producer Ethan Kath in the band, and it was hard to imagine Crystal Castles without Glass’s sometimes-soothing-sometimes-jarring vocals.

What followed was a somewhat acrimonious period. While Kath wished Glass well, he also momentarily noted that she didn’t contribute to some of their best tracks and apparently her departure was a surprise. Glass defended her contributions and retorted that his statements just reinforced her decision to leave. To Kath’s credit, some of Crystal Castles’s best songs rely on sampled vocals (some to the point of being borderline remixes) or have guest vocals; “Vanished” uses the entire vocal part of Van She’s “Sex City”; “Year of Silence” includes a vocal snippet of Sigur Rós’s “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” on repeat; and the excellent single “Not In Love” features The Cure’s Robert Smith on vocals. Yet in Glass’s defense, tracks from “Alice Practice” on the band’s self-titled debut, to “Baptism” on their second album, to “Sad Eyes” on their third are all great songs that prominently feature her voice. Most fans liked both musicians, not wanting to pick between the two, and were eager to hear what both released next.

While Glass is reportedly working on a solo project and released her first single “Stillbirth” last year, Kath moved on with Crystal Castles and released a new single “Frail” in April 2015. This single featured a new woman on vocals only identified as “Edith,” who was revealed as the group’s new vocalist Edith Frances later that year. The band only announced a new album last month, and breaking with a previous naming trend – the first three albums are unimaginatively titled Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles (II), and (III)– it was dubbed Amnesty (I).

 

The first impression most listeners will have with both the single “Frail” and the entire album are how much it sounds like Crystal Castles’s previous work, specifically (III). While the first Crystal Castles album was fairly lo-fi and chaotic, occasionally incorporating 8-bit Nintendo-esque sounds, the second album was more refined, and there was a sense of order and calculation behind its seemingly frantic style. Moving further in this direction, (III) took several cues from popular dance and house music, which Amnesty (I) continues. And while the vocalists may have changed, Frances’s voice is comparable enough to Glass’s to not have a dramatically different effect on the music.

Amnesty (I)‘s similarity to previous Crystal Castles albums is both a blessing and a curse. It has all of the trappings that made the band successful – a dark feel, discordant synthesizers, pulsating beats and singer whose calming tone can easily switch to punctuating shouts – yet it seems to lack the experimentation of its predecessors, instead relying heavily on tried and true formulas. The shortest track, “Teach Her How To Hunt,” is as unconventional as things get, and even then it’s not that out there. While the first three Crystal Castles albums each had their defining characteristics that distinguished themselves from one another, Amnesty (I)’s main distinction is that it has a different singer.

That said, Amnesty (I) features some excellent tracks that are thoroughly enjoyable if you’re willing to forgive the album’s greater context. On “Char,” Frances’s tranquil voice perfectly complements Kath’s strong synthesizer melody, placing it among the top Crystal Castles songs overall. Both “Fleece” and “Enth” have a sense of tension behind them, as Frances’s shouts reverberate behind a driving beat. And this is definitely an album where you should spring for a physical copy, as those include the great bonus track “Kept,” which revolves around a sample of Beach House singer Victoria Legrande’s voice cut up and looped over a dance beat. From the opening choir and industrial beat of “Femen,” to the gentle dream pop of final track “Their Kindness Is Charade,” Amnesty (I) arguably contains as many strong songs as its predecessors.

Many Crystal Castles fans are likely to judge Amnesty (I) harshly for a lack of ambition and experimentation, alarmed that the band’s music could possibly be moving in a more accessible direction. While this may be a welcome update for listeners who disliked the shrieks of “Doe Deer” and the abrasive melody of “Pale Flesh,” others seemed to appreciate their music because it was experimental. Rest assured, though, that Amnesty (I) is still a far cry from what most people would consider “conventional” despite its hooks. It’s a cautious album for something that carries the name “Crystal Castles,” to be sure, but it could also be viewed as a promising start to a new beginning.

Rating: 7.5/10