Album Review: Crystal Castles - Amnesty (I)

Album Reviews
08/23/2016

Like me, you may be nervous about the prospect of a new Crystal Castles album after the departure of Alice Glass in October of 2014. Alice’s departure came with an excellent statement: “My art and my self-expression in any form has always been an attempt towards sincerity, honesty, and empathy for others”, she said. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to be mad at an artist for entering a new chapter. Alice would venture on the next summer to release “Stillbirth”, a brutal track produced by herself and Jupiter Keyes (of HEALTH). “Stillbirth” reflected heavily on Glass’s exit of an abusive relationship, and proceeds from the single went to benefit the anti-sexual assault non-profit RAINN. But in her absence, the question remained of how Crystal Castles would pummel their way forward. Three months before the release of “Stillbirth”, Crystal Castles released their first single in two and a half years, “Frail”. While initial listening speculated that the vocalist on the track was Alice Glass, producer Ethan Kath clarified later on that it was a new singer by the name of Edith Frances. Apart from a few scattered photographs, Edith’s full reveal to the fans came with the video for “Concrete”, the first single dropped after the announcement of a new album, Amnesty (I). Whisperings of bad blood between Kath and Glass didn’t help Frances shake a lot of presuppositions from fans. Was she a carbon copy replacement? Under the bob of matted highlighter hair, would casual festival attendees even notice Glass’s absence from the stage? These are incredibly difficult questions to be seen thrown around for someone in Edith’s position. As she goes on to conquer new mountains, Glass leaves behind a gaping hole for someone new to become the kinetic, communicative half of Crystal Castles. And after hearing Amnesty (I), it is clear that Edith Frances is the perfect candidate for the job. Far from a copycat and will plenty of her own ideas to bring to the table, Edith Frances joins Ethan Kath in a dazzling new chapter for the band. Furthermore, Glass’s message of empathy is felt heavily in her absence, has the band has decided to give all physical profits off the new album to Amnesty International. Amnesty (I) starts the counter over again as Crystal Castles confidently and brilliantly enter their next phase.

In the biggest reveal there's been thus far, Edith Frances sat down with Rolling Stone and told us that her working relationship with Ethan Kath began right where it should: in the mosh pit of a Negative Approach show in LA about a year after the release of Crystal Castles' third record. Growing up in the small town of Woodward, Iowa, Frances is a prime candidate for understanding and contributing to the themes of cold, isolation, and doubt that often weave their way through Crystal Castles material (rural Iowa is not too far a stretch from the lonely, reverent Toronto suburbs where Glass was raised). On Amnesty (I), Frances penned 3 of the 12 tracks at hand: "Concrete", "Fleece", and "Enth". While this may seem like a low number, it's not too far removed from the 7 of 16 that Glass co-wrote on the Crystal Castles debut (later albums would see much more collaboration between Glass and Kath). Thus, in the short span of time that Kath and Frances have known each other, it's clear that she has her eye set on heavier involvement as the time passes. And furthermore, all fans should hope for as much - Frances's tracks are among the absolute best on the record.

After the introductory hi-hat flurry of "Femen", Amnesty (I) kicks off proper with "Fleece", a song that immediately finds itself among the band's very best opening explosions. Edith stretches the Toronto sound of Crystal Castles' past efforts to new locales, as her contributions to the record tend towards more on-the-nose hard techno passion. "Fleece" smacks the listener in the face with this no holds barred thrill-ride more than any song on the record. The abrasive hook is followed by a dark disco trip through the strobing night, as the throbbing, signature bass punch drives forward. Nowhere near as refined or primed for radio play as her later track "Concrete", here at the beginning of the record, Edith makes "Fleece" the raw, ravenous reintroduction that Crystal Castles need on Amnesty (I). It's here where the duo re-center, before Ethan's dark magic of "Char" gives the record the first of its single offerings. Like "Femen" before it, "Char" leans heavier into hip-hop than any previous Crystal Castles record has dared. Later, with "Sadist" and "Chloroform", the hip-hop turn goes even further round the corner, with some of the most subdued records that have ever made it onto a Crystal Castles record. But this is par for the course. With every new Crystal Castles LP, Kath has bent the band's sound in a new direction, pulverizing it to repurpose in brilliant new ways. Between "Fleece" and "Char", we see that Amnesty (I) is no exception to this rule, and Crystal Castles will continue on into the darkness as the lords of the night. Now that we've established that, we can dive into "Enth", an even darker and more foreboding blast from Edith, to show that there's plenty of loud left to go around.

"Frail" is followed by the album's best cut, "Concrete". It's here that Kath and Frances find their perfect happy medium and show off the brutal power that they can conjure when their powers are summoned in tandem. Considering what growth in vision was made between Crystal Castles (I) and (II), and then what growth in collaborative songwriting was made between (II) and (III), it's songs like this that already make me excited for Amnesty (II). If this is the kind of brutal brilliance that Kath and Frances can create after knowing each other only a handful of years, then there's bound to be a lot more good stuff to come. The song's video is so appropriate in its approach. As a Type O Negative-draped Edith Frances bashes her way through an unknowing crowd at a dimly lit music festival, heads turn for a moment and then look away, not sure what to do with the scene. It's a fitting introduction (especially given the mosh pit setting of Frances and Kath's first meeting) that puts Frances in her zone from moment one. When the two meet here like they do on "Concrete", they make real magic.

Turning Amnesty (I) over in your brain, it shouldn't be surprising that, in a lot of ways, it feels like a debut record. With the exception of the sample-driven physical-only cut "Kept" (built off of a sample of Beach House's Bloom classic "Other People"), pretty much connectors to the glitching wonderland of Crystal Castles' 2008 debut are gone - even the wispy dark house wanderings of "Celestica" and other (II) cuts feel like ancient history here. As the sonic landscaper, Kath seems intent on moving forward into new territory. As the band's frontwoman and kinetic half, Frances seems eager to make a similar journey, both for herself (after all, this is her first band and first time touring), and for the band's legacy. Nothing about the success or impact of Amnesty (I) is dependent on a callback to the band's early discography, and that's exactly the way it should be. As Crystal Castles begin this next phase, fans can rest assured that they have only growth and evolution in mind, with a keen eye for maintaining a sense of humanism about their work. The album closes with "Their Kindness is Charade", a somber mood piece on the motifs of exploitation and usury continuously seen in the society around us in 2016. While the act of giving away profits is truly marvelous, it's the empathy that the band choose to continue to bring to their lyrics and their ambiance that shines a light on an otherwise bleak outlook. Crystal Castles have channeled dark energy for years, but as the band moves forward, they focus this electronic witchcraft on doing good. And hey - if you can do that to a pounding techno beat, why would you want it any other way?

Amnesty (I) is out now on Casablanca Records. Grab it at your local record store on CD (now) or vinyl (on September 23) and get the additional track "Kept", which is honestly one of the best on the whole album. Furthermore, if you buy physical, all profits go to Amnesty International, which again, is a pretty radical decision on the band's part. Crystal Castles are touring in support of Amnesty (I) now. Check out our coverage of the band's show at this year's Capitol Hill Block Party here.

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