The acrimonious professional split between Alice Glass and former Crystal Castles bandmate Ethan Kath last year (along with Kath’s decision to continue using the name), has understandably left behind a bad taste for many fans. If I were to take Kath’s intentions in good faith for the purpose of review however, it’s hardly unprecedented. Henry Rollins was Black Flag’s third and most iconic singer, but that didn’t stop Greg Ginn from soldiering on with new vocalists. Despite the difference in styles there has always been a strong punk influence bubbling under Crystal Castles’ music. The raucous live shows are rarely more than a half hour long and increasingly dark lyrics stand testament to those themes.
Amnesty (I), the first album released with new vocalist Edith Frances, feels like a new debut in more ways than one. Glass’ tenure became more focused and less prone to tonal whiplash as time went on, with 2012’s (III) creating a consistent world flecked with ash and fear. Amnesty is as committed to darkness (I had to check their previous albums to make sure they hadn’t released songs called ‘Sadist’ or ‘Chloroform’ before), but is scattershot, and Frances’ contributions, outside a couple of exceptions, feel tacked on and rushed before considering its place in the structure of the song.
‘Char’ is the strongest example of what Frances can bring, and even that comes with caveats. Frances does bear a vocal resemblance to Glass, in so far as it’s often mangled and distorted to suit the band’s traditional sound, but on ‘Char’ there’s a pleasing flow to the verses in its outward concern that someone will be caught and punished for “a victimless crime”. ‘Char’ shows that Frances is a promising songwriter in her own right, but the song’s coda fades out within seconds when it appears to be within reach of a satisfying denouement.
The most frustrating thing about Amnesty is that Kath’s production has either run out of ideas or simply doesn’t know what to do with whatever’s left to throw at the wall. The instrumental tracks on previous albums more often than not had a good sense of tension and release that’s lacking this time around. ‘Femen’ places trap-like drums against a choir sample, resulting in a track that ca. 2010 quote-unquote “witch-house” act SALEM would have rejected for being too stereotypical. ‘Fleece’ features a brutally loud riff that aims for contrast with the rest of the track, but in practice becomes annoying in a way that ‘Doe Deer’ and ‘xxzxcuzx Me’ managed to avoid.
Concessions towards contemporary EDM are even more irritating. Closer ‘Their Kindness Is Charade’ is passable closing material before stadium sized Ableton-ready stabs barrel in, straight from a Tomorrowland shaped wormhole. The chord progression could have worked if placed lower in the mix or if the synth’s settings were on any other format than “Lynx and paintstripper”, but instead it feels like a joke.
Amnesty is like listening to Kath and Frances working out their collaboration in real time, and that the results were rushed to meet a deadline before the songs themselves were ready. That said, the leap in quality between the band’s debut and 2010’s (II) was as impressive as it was unexpected, so there is some hope that something similar could happen with Crystal Castles. Mk. II. For now, though, I’m left more intrigued about what Alice Glass has in store for her solo career, especially since she seems to be taking her time with it.