Release Date: Aug 19, 2016
Record label: Casablanca
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic
Despite the loss of Alice Glass in 2014 to personal and professional reasons, Toronto-based Crystal Castles have returned to the fore with a new album and new frontwoman. Making her debut on Amnesty (I), Edith Frances joins Ethan Kath, the band's longtime producer, in launching the next chapter in the band's life. While many bands struggle to fill the void left by the departure of members, Crystal Castles have shown the chameleon-like ability to adapt and thrive within the experimental electronic music ecosystem.
Let’s face it, the death of Crystal Castles was never going to be pretty. Known for their chaotic sound and abrasive live shows ever since their 2004 inception, the band took their strangely addictive brand of destruction across the world and back numerous times. But, it wouldn’t be long before that very destruction would start to tear them apart from the inside.
Many groups have trouble carrying on after losing their lead singers, but few have vocalists quite as attention-getting as Alice Glass. Her voice and image defined Crystal Castles' volatile mix of delicacy and aggression so perfectly, it was sometimes easy to take Ethan Kath's distinctive blend of chiptune, synth-pop, industrial, and more for granted. Glass' 2014 departure didn't mean the end of Crystal Castles, however; Kath resurfaced in 2015 with new vocalist Edith Frances, who acquits herself well on Amnesty.
As break-ups go, Crystal Castles’ was quick but with a slow-burning aftermath. In October 2014, singer Alice Glass announced that she was leaving the band for “professional and personal” reasons, marking the end of one of the most exciting duos the late 2000s and early 2010s had produced. Months went by and it seemed that that was that, the unfortunate end to an innovative pairing.
It's hard to figure out how to feel about music when you don't know how you feel about the people making it. When an artist's image is in disrepute and integrity in question, does this preclude true appreciation of the work he or she creates? Sometimes, knowing too much about the person behind the canvass taints the viewing of it. Then there are those whose controversial behavior breeds intrigue, making them, and so too their art, more critically fascinating.
Heard a story once about Crystal Castles. Supposedly the duo of Ethan Kath and Alice Glass rocked up for a headline show in a rather intimate and unassuming Irish venue and found themselves utterly bemused when the equally befuddled management wouldn’t accommodate a request to drill holes, mount lights and generally get their avant-garde DIY on. It stands to reason that Kath and Glass wouldn’t comprehend this stumbling block.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time until Crystal Castles redirected the anger they once reserved for the rest of the world toward each other. After singer Alice Glass quit the band due to "reasons both professional and personal," she announced her intentions to go solo. Producer Ethan Kath fired back with a statement containing all the sensitivity of a Donald Trump tweet.
As important as Alice Glass was to the Toronto-founded duo Crystal Castles’ success, the project’s overall scope has mostly been of producer and instrumentalist Ethan Kath’s imagination. After all, when the noisy avant-electronic project began in 2003, it was Kath alone at the helm, laying the foundation; Glass came in later. Meanwhile, the best and most popular song in the entire Crystal Castles catalog, the 2010 single and Platinum Blonde cover “Not in Love”, featured not Glass on lead vocals but rather The Cure frontman Robert Smith, who fueled the song with one of the most powerful choruses he’s ever sung — and he’s sung a few powerful choruses in his time.
Crystal Castles’ fourth album is the first since frontwoman Alice Glass left in 2014, replaced by Edith Frances. What that means for the band’s chaotic live shows – Glass was agitator-in-chief – is not yet fully clear, but what it means for their records seems not to be a great deal. Glitchy beats, heavily treated vocals and passages of pulverising electronic noise are all still present, and there’s an abiding mood of kohl-eyed gloom.
Since Crystal Castles’ chaos-theory electronic pop blew minds in the late 00s, they’ve been in a state of flux. None more so than now, with ‘Amnesty (I)’ being the duo’s first album without Alice Glass. Minus the iconic frontwoman, Ethan Kath has continued the project alongside new vocalist Edith Frances. The record follows a brief spell where founding members looked to have disbanded, before issuing statements that implied there’d been a major falling out.
That synth antagonists Crystal Castles are even releasing an album in 2016 is something of a surprise. In 2014, vocalist Alice Glass announced “the end of the band”, citing problems with “self-expression” and working difficulties with founding member Ethan Kath. So central to the band’s abrasive sound were Glass’s half-cooed, half-screamed vocals that many fans would have assumed that that was game over.
It’s tempting to see allusions to vocalist Alice Glass’s less-than-amicable departure from Crystal Castles in the group’s new album, Amnesty (I). That’s partly because their deliberate mystique—their inscrutable lyrics; shrill, glitchy sound; evasive interviews; and producer Ethan Kath’s habitual concealment behind hoodies and beards—only energizes the search for something so human as smoldering resentment. Is the “amnesty” of the album’s title for Glass, who was released from a partnership she’s described as stifling? Or is it for Kath, seeking reprieve from her charges of patriarchal tyranny? Are the identical-looking girls featured on the album’s cover meant to suggest, more maliciously, that she’s replaceable? The music itself sends the message that Crystal Castles will carry on exactly as before.
When Alice Glass left Crystal Castles back in 2014, many reasonably assumed it was a de facto dissolution of the group. Sure, producer Ethan Kath developed the duo’s trademark noisiness, but of the two, Glass’ personality was more prominent on record and on stage, where Kath is content to swath himself in hoods and shadows. Generally, when a group loses half its members, never mind their frontperson, it bodes poorly for their future.
It's been a rather emotional beginning of September for those who are wholly enraptured with Nick Cave's chilling Skeleton Tree. But if you've been looking for some music to decompress with, then the past month featured some rather great offerings. My top choice for the month goes to the singular ….
Toronto electro-punks Crystal Castles appeared to implode two years ago when singer Alice Glass left and subsequently characterized her time in the duo as desperate and miserable. Producer Ethan Kath didn't seem overly fussed, however, retorting that she had nothing to do with their biggest hits anyway. Additional barbs were traded. If Kath was solely responsible for those hits, he certainly isn't backing up his claim on the fourth Crystal Castles record, with its frenzy of filler.