When Alice Glass left Crystal Castles in 2014 it seemed as though the end had come for the Toronto based synth-pop duo. Losing one half of the creative team behind the band was bad enough, but the split was messy. The band’s producer Ethan Kath attempted to undersell Glass’ influence on the bands and it’s popularity while Glass maintained that she had been the spark to many of the bands biggest hits.
The entire incident was filled with the type of dark undercurrents of abuse and the ‘evils of man’ which made up much of the band’s music to that point. And with their critically acclaimed third album, (III), two years behind them it was hard to see how the band could bounce back.
But only a year later we got the first taste of the newest incarnation of the band, now fronted by vocalist Edith Frances, with the song ‘Frail’. The track hit similar notes that the band had struck before; Kath’s usual skittery goth-rave production was as bombastic as ever, but it was Frances vocal that showcased the first real change in sound for the band.
Unlike the last few years of the band’s work, ‘Frail’ put the vocals in the forefront with a greater emphasis on what was being said. Instead of burying her like he did with Glass (especially prevalent on the bands last two albums) Kath allowed Frances to create her own voice and, as ‘Frail’ and the rest of Amnesty (I) shows, it’s a voice worth paying attention to.
Aiming down the same thematic style as their previous release, the new record finds the band once again diving into the poisoned underbelly of society to discuss the topics of abuse and neglect. However, where the band’s last record squarely focused on the abusers Amnesty (I) takes a far more interesting approach by highlighting how we are all capable of being victims as well.
This empathetic look into the evil we all can muster makes for a far more nuanced listen compared to the band’s previous work. With Frances voice and lyrics given a more prominent place in the mix, making the message clear to interpretation. Tracks like ‘Frail’ and ‘Enth’ bring across a feeling of finding freedom from one’s abuser, with building synth leads and huge a vocal. While other tracks like ‘Fleece’ and ‘Sadist’ show the ugliness of abuse with screeching production and lyrics that read like an abusers last attempt to get someone to stay with them.
The entire album straddles this line between the two extremes and does so with a kind of grace one might not expect of a band like Crystal Castles. This isn’t to say that the band is completely done with some of its old tricks though. The use of vocal distortion is still prevalent but not as much as it has been on previous releases. Kath even manages to find a way to use it in interesting way as with the track ‘Ornament’, which wouldn’t be out of place in any rave. Other moments like ‘Char’ and ‘Kept’ fair slightly worse with the latter boarding on unlistenable due to it’s screeching vocal mix.
But those retreads are few and far between, a quaint look back for a band that seems to be marching forward. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on the closer ‘Their Kindness is Charade’ which has the band finding beauty in a cloud of violence that looms over the rest of the record, bringing all the albums themes full circle. Frances tries to convince someone that their abuser is “unashamed” of their actions and that their attempts at kindness are nothing more than a mask.
It’s a dark song for sure, even ending on a somewhat ambiguous note as to what this person will do, but it also has something that many Crystal Castles songs lack – hope. And that’s ultimately what sets Amnesty (I) apart; where they used to wallow in the darkness, they’re now showing signs of moving on, in more ways than one.
Amnesty (I) is out now via Fiction Records.