It’s hard to know how to feel about a new record when you don’t necessarily know what to think about the artists behind it. Though despite all the he-said-she-said, Twitter accusations and contradictions surrounding the fallout of one of the most original and vital electro-punk outfits of the early millennium, Amnesty (I) – Crystal Castles’ long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s (III) – is a progressive step towards something new, and may be enough to soothe the wounds of hardcore fans still recovering from the contentious split between Alice Glass and what is now left of Crystal Castles.
Certainly, feelings were hurt. Though, like most band break-ups, both parties eventually moved on. Glass released “Stillbirth” during the summer of 2015 – her first solo single – around the same time “Frail” had come out. “Frail” was the first track that not only confirmed Ethan Kath’s refusal to be disillusioned by the controversy surrounding himself and Glass, but effectively introduced us to the newest member of the group – Edith Frances.
The newly-revived cyberpunk noisemakers also released a number of tracks prior to Amnesty (I), including “Char”, “Femen”. “Chloroform”, “Enth”, “Fleece”, and “Concrete”. All six are included on the album and Frances is credited with co-writing the latter three. There’s obvious comparisons to her beloved predecessor, but Frances adds a dimension of vulnerability and tantalizing placidity that in a way smoothes out the hard edges of Kath’s – at times – downright ear-grating instrumentals.
Frances sings “I love your, I love your ambiguity” on the track “Fleece” with equal doses of aggression and composure before being drowned out by a bed of driving synths and pure static noise. Written by Frances herself, it’s a track that shares some of the same melodic sensibilities as Warpaint’s “Love Is To Die” in its blatant transparency and overt sensuality of wishes expressed.
While Amnesty (I) does essentially pick up right where (III) had left off, I would argue that this record has much more personality and playfulness when it comes to the beats and melodies, as well as the lyrics – at least for tracks like “Fleece” and “Char“. I would even go so far as to say that it’s perhaps one of the band’s most accessible albums outside of their 2008 self-titled debut, which featured gems like “Magic Spells”, “Alice Practice” and “Crimewave”.
As portrayed in the music video for “Concrete”, the entire album conjures up images of bouncy, sweat-soaked crowds and the antagonizing forces that threatens to creep in from the outside. Past album releases have traditionally presented a multitude of elements from synth-pop to noise-punk, dream-pop to house – though of course with the band’s signature undercurrent of neo-retroist goth that is always so dystopian and haunting yet paradoxically giddy with verses that climb into explosive choruses. The album cover itself features a chillingly candid portrait of a group of young girls playing on the swings of what appears to be some sort of Midwestern Amish farm who don sinister poker faces and black dresses with a distressing degree of aplomb.
Given Amnesty (I)’s at times overfamiliarity with Crystal Castles’ first two records, for a band that’s been revered in the past as tireless experimentalists, there are tracks like “Ornament” that does further reveal Kath – love him or hate him – as the master of his own craft.
“Ornament” is one of the quieter, more refreshing tracks off the album with its staccato autotune vocals and blips that provides itself as a fitting opportunity to chill-out and cool off following the nu-rave, head-bopping hype of “Concrete”.
“Chloroform” is also positioned appropriately behind the ear-numbing “Teach Her How To Hunt”, which is like a wall of heavily distorted “I Am Made Of Chalk” fragments. “Char” is perhaps the most danceable track off the record given it has the smoothest melody and snaps, while “Enth” offers up a disjointed 80’s-pop hook which weaves itself into a matrix of futuristic battle sequences and power-strutting.
There is no denying that Amnesty (I) marks a new and rather daunting post-Glass era for Crystal Castles and its long-held fans. However, in spite of those realities, it is also an endlessly playable record that could just be the start of something much more promising than expected.