It’s tempting to see allusions to vocalist Alice Glass’s less-than-amicable departure from Crystal Castles in the group’s new album, Amnesty (I). That’s partly because their deliberate mystique—their inscrutable lyrics; shrill, glitchy sound; evasive interviews; and producer Ethan Kath’s habitual concealment behind hoodies and beards—only energizes the search for something so human as smoldering resentment. Is the “amnesty” of the album’s title for Glass, who was released from a partnership she’s described as stifling? Or is it for Kath, seeking reprieve from her charges of patriarchal tyranny? Are the identical-looking girls featured on the album’s cover meant to suggest, more maliciously, that she’s replaceable?
The music itself sends the message that Crystal Castles will carry on exactly as before. The title’s “I” may reset the enumeration of its self-titled predecessors, but Amnesty (I) sticks to the (relatively) streamlined sound established on 2012’s III. Even its structure is the same, as an ambient slow build opens 12 tracks of midtempo hip-hop beats and hard house in steady alternation, climaxing with a rave-up and closing with a dream-pop palate-cleanse. The noisy mischief and spastic fractures of the band’s early output has given way to a cleaner, more resonant, and, quite frankly, more predictable style of gloom, the noise limited to dustings of blown-out texture.
The vocal aesthetic, however, is instantly recognizable, as of course it must be: Kath couldn’t very well assert his total creative authority if an essential piece of the Crystal Castles architecture had departed with Glass. In new recruit Edith Frances, he has as versatile a mezzo-soprano as he could hope for. On the rare occasion that her words are legible, as they are on the sado-maternal “Char,” she makes a persuasive emotional vampire. Usually, though, her voice is scorched, reverberated, and chopped into uncanny oblivion, turning even her prickliest taunts into far-off cries, concatenated as impressionistic hooks.
Those hooks are in slightly higher supply than they were on III, which in its faster moments was more likely to revel in the ugliness of bad trance than seek out its virtues. Amnesty (I) also includes maligned styles among its dance-music recombinance (such as big-tent EDM, replete with secondhand drops and arpeggiated busyness), but more credulously: Between the anxious acid techno of “Enth” and “Concrete” and the soaring trance of “Frail” are the most straightforward genre pastiches that Crystal Castles have created.
With the exception of “Char,” among the group’s more tuneful singles, the slower cuts are weaker. Juke-house simmerers like “Chloroform” and “Sadist” have the languid, unfinished feel of first takes, and indeed, following 2011’s II, Kath claimed to expunge multiple takes and digital workstations from their recording ethic. Ironically, out of these austerity measures came a long-player that bore all the marks of post-production sophistication: methodical pacing, atmospheric depth, and a cohesive sense of flow. All three are more dynamically on display throughout Amnesty (I).
The album meets all goth-adjacent indie-dance needs squarely. It doesn’t, however, ever transcend them. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that the trap snares and bulldozer synths sound current, but not distinct, while some parts, even the best ones, feel like throwbacks. “Kept,” the album’s four-on-the-floor climax, summons the specter of blog-house circa 2008, with its clipped vocals, insistent thump, and—for a band typically thought of as nihilists—uncharacteristic warmth. Notwithstanding this album’s scattered static and quiet-loud-quiet dynamics, the raw urgency and the hyperactive thrill of with which Crystal Castles lurches between chaos and sinister order has leveled out drastically. Formal rigor, not raw originality, is their guiding force here.