The arrival of a new Crystal Castles album should be big news. Top of their class of 2008, the group leapfrogged every other fellow purveyor of angry electropunk with a few oversized hoodies and a handful of gnarly keyboard presets (has anyone seen Does It Offend You, Yeah? lately? Their parents are worried sick) to become one of the most vital and original acts of the early millennium. Every CC release has been a bona-fide modern classic in its own right, their unique sound gradually shifting from startlingly aggressive noise pop to lush melancholic electronica over the course of three near-perfect albums.
But it seems that, this time round, the fallout caused by the departure of frontwoman Alice Glass has overshadowed any of the actual music. The group has endured a pretty dramatic disintegration which goes far beyond the typical behind closed doors split over ‘creative differences’. Back in April, band leader and sole remaining member (unless you count live drummer Christopher Chartrand) Ethan Kath went as far to claim that most of the vocals on their first album weren’t even sung by Alice, initiating a war of words that threatened to undermine the entire legacy of the group’s original incarnation.
Thankfully it seems now that both members are attempting to move on from their creative uncoupling: Alice with her solo career, Kath with the electronic act he founded in the first place. Now perhaps we can start to judge the music of Crystal Castles Mk II on its own merit, rather than from the dregs of gossip, speculation and character-assassination.
Every CC album draws from its own palette of sound, and it's clear from the outset that 'Amnesty (I)' is no different. An overt 808 drum machine whirs into opener 'Femen' like it escaped from 'Views From The Six' and rode roughshod down the charts. Kath also seems to have taken a real shine to the analogue synths favoured by S U R V I V E, M|O|O|N, F.O.O.L and any other number of experimental VHS fetishists with un-googleable monikers out there. This direction was hinted at on the wholly non-digital 'Crystal Castles (III)', but it sounds like Kath has been using the ample time he's had on his hands to really test the boundaries of his synth collection.
The heavy use of neo-retroist sounds may well date the album before its time. After all, the Hadouken-esque video game bleeps on their debut that sounded fresh and forward-looking back in 2008, in the long run served only to age that (still excellent) record faster than the holy grail ages Julian Glover in The Last Crusade. For now this successful fusion of analogue sounds with innovative production techniques sounds like the future, rather than the future that the ‘80s had in mind. The pounding 'Enth' would suit a level of Hotline Miami located on a 19th century steam engine, while the gigantic 'Teach Her How To Hunt' could slip easily into 65daysofstatic's 'No Man's Sky' soundtrack without anyone batting an eyelid.
Once again you can pretty much judge the violence of any given track by how gentle its name sounds. While 'Fleece' and 'Frail' channel the same manic dancefloor intensity as 'Baptism' and 'Sad Eyes', 'Sadist' and 'Chloroform' inherit the blissed out vibe of 'Suffocation' and 'Wrath Of God'. The band's melancholic core remains intact on a record that's best listened to through headphones in a big coat while crying. What is noticeable in its absence is any foray into flat out, ear-grating noise á la 'Doe Deer' or 'Alice Practice'.
This is where we need to talk about new singer Edith Frances. Most CC fans will probably have already made up their mind about Alice Glass's successor via a handful of singles and some low-quality performances on YouTube. The latter's comment sections are pretty much virtual war zones, thick with the accusations that other users are 'alicefags' or 'ethanfags', or that Edith is a wannabe Alice impersonator. This bilateral bile serves only to undermine both the future of Crystal Castles and the fledgling solo career of Alice Glass (who now seems to be producing music tailor-made for dystopian anime opening credits).
The truth of the matter is that, as long as it's Ethan Kath behind the mixing desk, it doesn't really matter who the singer of Crystal Castles is. Alice was obviously a live tour de force, and her unhinged aggression powered many of the duo's earlier cyberpunk attack tracks. But Edith's less autotuned, more removed 'cool-girl' style of vocals float over Kath's instrumentals as naturally as icebergs on the ocean.
It might have been simpler if Kath had just come up with a new moniker ('Kath Power'? 'Hell Kath No Fury'?) and left Crystal Castles with an untouched legacy. But the sound that he invented is so unique and recognisable that any ‘Crystal Castles by any other name’ endeavour would only ever have been discussed in relation to its parent project anyway. In this light, his decision to firmly grasp the nettle makes perfect sense. This is an act that existed long before Alice turned up at Kath's door, shivering and homeless, and hopefully will continue to exist long after her departure. Lets pray that the ‘(I)’ tacked onto its title means that ‘Amnesty’ will be more than a late career coda and heralds the start of an equally exciting new era for the group.
Words: Josh Gray
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