Sound — 8
With so many girl/guy indie pop duos sprouting up in the last decade - Matt and Kim, Sleigh Bells, The Ting Tings and Phantogram - Crystal Castles aimed to be the most unkempt of the bunch. Originally catching everyone's attention for a raucous energy that founding producer Ethan Kath hoped would wield an esoteric appeal, his spastic, chiptune-style synth layers matched by lead singer Alice Glass' shouting vocals in the duo's debut self-titled album was a winning formula for its messiness. But with other moments of that album drawing solid inspiration from '80s new wave and synthpop, Crystal Castles would pursue that aspect of their sound further in their follow-up album, "Crystal Castles II," where Glass' singing style started to gravitate more towards an ethereal murmuring, clearly inspired by shoegazing/dream pop, and their third album, "III," further fed into this aspect of contained songwriting, with less aggressive electronica production as well, though Glass started to throw in some shriller vocal performances that time around.
Two years after the release of "III," Glass left Crystal Castles, and assumed, along with everyone else, that her departure would result in the end of the project. But in a quick rebuttal from Kath to her embarrassment and listeners relief, he stated that Crystal Castles would be continuing on without her. Now on album number four, "Amnesty (I)," Kath debuts the project's new frontwoman, Edith Frances, and uses this new chapter of Crystal Castles to get rowdy again.
Tapping back into the louder and messier demeanor of the early years, Kath's production opts not to jump back to the chiptune-evoking sound of the project's debut album, but rather, pushes forward with a varied offering of electronica styles. He gives the frantic 808 beats the spotlight in the trap-inspired "Femen," lets the synth arpeggios throb with aplomb in the aggressive EBM cuts of "Enth" and "Concrete," dips a toe into the subtle jitters of IDM rhythms in "Ornament," and outside of defined genre labels, his synth leads are simply wicked in "Fleece," "Chloroform," and the dynamic "Char." Along with tying these different styles together with a recurring sonic theme of static noise-play (heard especially in "Sadist," "Teach Her How to Hunt" and "Frail"), Kath also makes the better call to keep songs brief - as opposed to the meandering tendencies of earlier Crystal Castles albums, Kath's brevity in executing his ideas and promptly moving on is a welcome change of pace.
If anything, the most underwhelming aspect of "Amnesty (I)" is Crystal Castles' new vocalist. Frances' performances clearly shadow Glass' vocal style heard in previous albums, from the shrillness of "Frail" to the ethereal demeanor of the ending ballad "Their Kindness Is Charade," as well as being the subject for Kath's zealous vocal manipulation in "Femen" and "Ornament." This choice to simply fill in the Glass-shaped hole instead of trying to develop a newly-defined vocal force for Crystal Castles may be a utilitarian choice, but it's also an unambitious one.
Lyrics — 7
As dependable as the vocal style has remained, the lyrics in "Amnesty (I)" also stick to Crystal Castles' familiar territory of subject matter. From Kath's overbearing synth layers to Frances' shrouded delivery, those lyrics still maintain audible obscurity in the mix, but after one slowly deciphers and picks apart songs line by line, they can find another offering of eerie and perverted religious themes, whether it be the deflowering/sullying of purity analogy of "Fleece" ("I need your penetration / Need my permit to conceive"), the voluntary absence of divine intervention in "Frail" ("We withhold our blessing / We refuse to calm the fire"), or the damn poignant and ambiguous line "Strangle while you pray" in "Concrete," which could range from highlighting the undertone of suppressing others in worship and religion, or focusing on the suppression that religion demands of oneself, while also faintly and snidely connecting that symbolism to autoerotic asphyxiation to represent it being both harmful but pleasurable.
Overall Impression — 8
With the previous "III" showing Crystal Castles settling into a comfortable style still tinged with their inherent weirdness, "Amnesty (I)" throws back to the project's early aspirations of being brazen and noisy. Kath's dabbling with louder synths and new styles of electronica succeed in making the album messy but properly compelling compared to their previous works, and despite being new to the project, Frances' vocal role maintains a sense of familiarity in the midst of those new sounds flaunted in the album. Ultimately, "Amnesty (I)" makes a great case for the next chapter of Crystal Castles' catalog.