Ethan Kath seems to have wiped clean the band's history before singer Edith Frances with the duo's new "Amnesty (I)."
When Crystal Castles played Buku last spring, the duo’s electroclash set did everything right, but it still had an icky undercurrent. Vocalist Alice Glass had left the duo and implied that musical partner Ethan Kath was abusive in unelaborated-upon ways, and Kath appeared to have replaced her with another blonde woman who yelped his songs in similar ways. On the new Amnesty (I), it’s clear that Edith Frances isn’t Glass, but Kath didn’t work very hard to find someone who’d imprint her own identity on the duo’s sound. Frances never breaks down into a shrieking freak-out the way Glass could, but her voice isn’t so different that casual fans would notice anything different. The implication that female front women are interchangeable and Kath is the real star means that Crystal Castles’ music and shows come with his needy baggage.
Crystal Castles play One Eyed Jacks tonight, and to be fair, the duo has always created discomfort. Since its self-titled debut album in 2008, they have bounced back and forth between dreamy, electronic dance pop and abrasive, confrontational rock that dare listeners to stay with their high-volume, high-distortion blare. Amnesty (I) does that as well as Crystal Castles ever has. Frances doesn’t have the impact in those moments that Glass did, but she finds her place in those songs. The grinding, heavy metal-like chorus of “Fleece” answers Frances’ “I love you, I love you” with an unequivocal Back the fuck up! She answers with more “I love you, I love you,” as if she won’t or can't be pushed away that easily. “Teach Her How to Hunt” features a low rumble of tangled sound under a prog-like progression of icy chords in search of a conclusion, but those pieces are balanced by the immediately hooky “Char” and “Frail,” both of which deliver basic pop pleasures.
At Buku, Frances’ vocals were often surprisingly low in the mix, and that’s the case on “Frail” and “Concrete” as well on Amnesty (I). In “Concrete,” Frances’ sounds like she’s being buried, while the vocals on “Frail” and a number of other tracks do little more than trace out a melody because the reverb and their place in the mix prevents the vocals as emerging in a distinct way. In context, what might be a provocative musical choice feels like another of Kath’s issues at work. No woman’s going to upstage him again was my takeaway, and the Roman numeral “I” in the title furthers that impression. The first three albums are numbered rather than titled, so appending “I” to the new title implies that the band’s history restarts with this album, as if he’d like people to consider the Glass years as pre-history.
For me, all that baggage is too much. The song title “Their Kindness is a Charade” articulates a curdled outlook I can’t connect to, but Kath is too good at what he does to ignore. I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with every Crystal Castles album, Amnesty (I) included, but I’ll spend more time with projects that don’t try to rope me into fights I’m not a part of—perhaps fights with opponents that now exist only in Kath's head.