Back in 2014, neo-punk firebrand, Alice Glass left her vocal duties as one-half of electronic duo Crystal Castles. In a statement following her departure, she cited ‘personal and professional’ reasons, before an online spat between herself and the band’s shadowy, master beat-maker Ethan Kath broke out. It was only a matter of time really. Glass’s highly intense performances saw her breaking bones and necking down whole bottles of spirits onstage, forming an almost iconic image of the antagonistic and self-destructive punk frontwoman. Whatever you thought of her antics, Glass’s haunting vocal style and gothic image became a major part of the project’s gloomy sound and their success. Her 12-year collaboration with Kath produced a wonderfully symbiotic musical pairing. With a huge chasm in the band’s signature sound gaping, Kath called up vocal replacement Edith Francis and began work on new material in 2015, releasing the sparse, dreamy trance hooks of ‘Frail’ shortly after.
With all of the proverbial beef aside, Crystal Castles’ returning offer, Amnesty (I) still comes with its fair share of baggage. Francis’s inclusion is meant to have offered a fresh start to a band on the brink of implosion, yet Glass’s ghost still hovers over the LP’s 12 tracks. It’s business as usual for Kath and his nightmarish mechanical soundscapes, ambient expanses, videogame arpeggios and playful, programmed trip-hop, though. The hooded button pusher’s eclectic calibre of experimental sounds has served the band well so far and Amnesty (I) utilises every trick he’s learned over the past four albums, to create a coherent vision that never fully realises Crystal Castles’ potential.
Kath’s obsession with dark and acutely danceable rhythms still drives most of the tracks through scenes of anxiety and glistening euphoria and the production is just as exquisite as it’s always been. ‘Ornament’ is a wonderful piece of surreal glitch pop, doused in sweet atmospheres and ‘Fleece’ is a wonderfully constructed assault on the ears, with whirring synths wrapped in a cloak of grimy distortion on the chorus. ‘Char’ and ‘Concrete’ are probably the closest new era Crystal Castles gets to sounding like a formidable force again.
However, there’s a lack of standout tracks here that feel not nearly as inspired as the band’s previous material and much like an unsuccessful limb transplant; Francis’ vocal work just doesn’t feel right. Kath misses his old partner and he has burdened Francis with an imitation role that she can’t quite live up to. A close impersonation it may be, but it struggles to muster up the same level of raw power as her predecessor, in turn affecting the music’s energy. Rather than sounding like a frontwoman in her own right, Francis becomes a tool used to meet Kath’s vocal preferences. ‘Kept’ is a good example of the cut and paste technique that manages to devoid tracks of any deep emotional connection with its singer. As a result, we get a tamer Crystal Castles than the one we’re all used to. The most ferocious it gets is on ‘Teach Her How To Hunt’, containing a violent squabble of dog barks and yelps that sound like the aural equivalent of a mauling.
This feral offensiveness has always been at the band’s disposal, yet feels a lot less guttural than when Glass occupied the microphone. Whilst album closer ‘Their Kindness Is A Charade’ sounds like a shoddy replica of previous album (III)’s final track ‘Child I Will Hurt You’, with only cheap euro-dance thumps distinguishing the two. Without Glass, Crystal Castles has become diluted and Amnesty (I) feels like an awkward side-step, rather than a forward leap.
Amnesty (I) is released on 19th August via Fiction.