Alternative electronic group Crystal Castles, consisting of producer Ethan Kath and singer/frontwoman Alice Glass, has always been something of an oddity. Any artists that label their genre “witch house” is understandably viewed as strange. Regardless of their weirdness, however, they did manage to create a unique image of themselves in the music industry. Not to mention, their music makes for perfect Halloween listening. Kath’s signature aggressive and energetic beats, with underlying feelings of unease and horror and the haunting and distorted vocals provided by Glass, allow anyone to easily identify a Crystal Castles track.
Because of their apparent codependence, it came as quite a shock when Glass left the project for “personal and professional reasons.” Many fans understandably predicted that after releasing a trilogy of self-titled records, the split would leave the band in a good position to say its goodbyes, and Kath and Glass would pursue new projects.
But, as evidenced by the release of the new Crystal Castles album “Amnesty (I)” on Aug. 19, with Edith Frances as the new lead singer, it seems that Kath is determined to show that he doesn’t need Glass for Crystal Castles to be successful. So, how have these industry politics surrounding the record’s release impacted its content?
Kath still has his knack for juxtaposing unsettling synths and chimes with heavy, grungy beats. The intro track “Femen” is a prime example with its reversed string samples, melancholy piano chords and creepy echoed vocals of a choir of little girls on top of aggressive snares and trap drum breakdowns. The cut “Sadist” features chilling echoed chimes that would be at home in any stalker movie, with soft, airy vocals by Frances brushing by. This relative calm is broken at varying intervals as the track devolves into heavily-modulated synths and then regains its composure as if the track itself was having a panic attack.
My favorite cut on the record, “Ornament,” takes a slower and more melodic route. The choir samples have been cut up and overlaid with stop and go snares and hi hats, which gives the whole track a glitchy feeling.
While Kath does still own his style well, that’s also kind of a problem. On a lot of these tracks, it seems he’s too comfortable and hasn’t done much to innovate or expand like he did over the course of the original album trilogy. Tracks like “Fleece” and “Char” feature the same sounds and style choices of the other tracks, but they sound so similar and repetitive that any charm is lost.
In terms of Frances’s vocals, there are some tracks that put them to good use, but tracks like “Concrete” and “Enth” distort them so badly that the listener can barely understand her. This just adds insult to injury, considering that those two tracks, as well as “Fleece,” are the only ones that Frances wrote herself.
It’s easy to say that after a single listen-through of the album, Crystal Castles still sounds like Crystal Castles. Kath still has his signature sound, and Frances’s vocals on the various tracks are used to varying levels of efficiency, just like Glass’s were on previous records.
But sounding the same is not necessarily a good thing. While the record isn’t terrible, it doesn’t live up to the first two LPs released by the band. It does some things right, but ultimately it’s a very safe record; it sounds like Kath’s only reason for producing it was to prove to his fans that he can keep Crystal Castles alive on his own. The result is a mediocre record Kath only put just enough effort into and nothing more.