Review: Crystal Castles, Amnesty (I)

Crystal Castles carry on, and miss an opportunity for reinvention
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When Alice Glass left Crystal Castles back in 2014, many reasonably assumed it was a de facto dissolution of the group. Sure, producer Ethan Kath developed the duo’s trademark noisiness, but of the two, Glass’ personality was more prominent on record and on stage, where Kath is content to swath himself in hoods and shadows. Generally, when a group loses half its members, never mind their frontperson, it bodes poorly for their future. Not deterred, Kath decided to press on, bringing aboard a new vocalist, Edith Frances, to replace Glass. Amnesty (I) is the first outing for this iteration of the group, and it seems eager to prove that Glass’ departure probably isn’t as consequential as you might have thought.

Keeping a band name has lots of advantages, the most of obvious of which is brand recognition. Amnesty  carries on with the Crystal Castles name, but also clings to their trademarks and production ticks as tightly as possible. Throughout III there seems a determination to show how little things have changed. Sonically, Amnesty is apiece with 2012’s III, with few modifications to the overall template. Opener “Femen” does sound like a metaphorical revival of sorts, with spectral vocals lurching over a nervous beat that ticks like a time bomb. From then on, the approach is business-like.

The drawback of sounding exactly like III is, well, it sounds exactly like III. It heaps the pulsing electro grind, obscured vocals, and anti-anthem production choices onto what are at their heart very ordinary dance tracks. It’s a quick 37 minutes, and opts for bangers over downbeat tracks, though there are a few of the latter. The homogeneity is great for longtime fans (“Enth” and “Concrete” offer reliable thrills). For others, it’s a missed opportunity for reinvention. It delivers exactly what is has to, and nothing more.

That said, there is a lot to like on Amnesty. Frances’ voice is pretty and frail and an excellent foil, the ghost in the machines of Kath’s vast industrial complex. When she picks her moments, she can be quite effective. She weaves her voice into the dynamic ebb and flow of “Frail”, a deluge of static crackle, melancholy earworms and pitch-shifted vocals. “Kept” chops up and handful of her vocal samples and spreads them out over an equally mercurial beat. On other tracks, she’s mis-ued. “Char” is oddly tuneless, and the pair of “Sadist” and “Teach Her How to Hunt” are by the numbers and a little boring, a strange lull in the middle of the album.

There’s a solid chemistry between Kath and Frances, but Amnesty sounds like the duo is still exploring what exactly can be done with it. The circumstances under which Glass departed offer the possibility that Kath’s will never relinquish any meaningful creative control. And fair enough: it’s his project. The show will go on, with Kath driving the bus, even if they’re more of a concept than a fixed musical act. In the meantime, the first product from Crystal Castles 2.0 is a mixed bag of nostalgia, proficiency, and carefully staged continuity. C PLUS