Last year, Crystal Castles – the duo of producer Ethan Kath and vocalist Alice Glass – split rather acrimoniously. It was a messy spat, but it had always seemed somewhat inevitable given the volatility of the band's live shows and music. However, Kath (who originally started the Crystal Castles name on his own) has continued with the name, and with new singer Edith Frances taps into some formerly unexplored sides of the band's personality.
The new album Amnesty (I) is not a total reinvention - it's still brash, ferocious, dark, and noise-damaged - but it does feel like a progression. Without the punk energy of Alice Glass and her shrieks and sighs, there is more of a sense of light and shade. A chopped and splayed choral recording rides a hip-hop beat on the stunning opener "Femen," and on tracks like the fist-pumping, heart-in-throat single "Frail," the pulsating beats sound almost anthemic.
Frances' voice is ethereal and often gorgeous, providing luscious counterpoint to the jagged beats that drive tracks like "Char" and "Enth." The spiralling, side chained synths of the former sound like a pop song distorted into an otherworldly twin, and the result is stunning. The latter song takes this comparison further, taking the tropes of high-octane pop and club music and pushing them to the point where they sound as if they're about to dissolve.
There are some moments on the record that sound overdone or stale, for example the tooth-gnashing "Fleece," which wouldn't sound out-of-place on a mid-90s Nine Inch Nails record, or "Chloroform," its suggestive title – despite some attention-grabbing synth leads – leading to a dead end of navel gazing that Crystal Castles have explored much more successfully in the past. The unfocused "Sadist," too, sounds almost unfinished, fading out before it seems it has even announced itself.
Between these tracks though are some of the most muscular and whole-sounding music that Crystal Castles have ever produced. Perhaps the most surprising sounds come at the end of the record, with the trio of "Ornament," "Kept" and "Their Kindness Is Charade." Sharing a glitchy, but sleek and high-resolution sound marked by chirping, pitched-up vocals, they tie together the disparate parts of Amnesty (I), and invest them with a levity not heard before in the band's music.
"Their Kindness Is Charade" is a dopamine rush of an ending, a deluge of synths and thumping kick drums that somehow buoys and crushes at the same time. On Amnesty (I), Crystal Castles continue to do what very few artists can do - combine noise and hooks in an utterly compelling and affecting way. Even with the change in vocalist, this couldn't be the work of any other band, but at the same time Amnesty (I) shows that whoever his collaborator, Kath refuses to stagnate.
Amnesty (I) is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats on Friday August 19th.