What makes a band who they are? Is it their sound? Is it their members? Is it some abstract sense of identity? Listening to Amnesty (I), the new album from Crystal Castles, brings to mind the ship of Theseus, the parable about whether an object retains its identity even after all its components have been replaced. Crystal Castles isn’t an entirely new entity in its current form, but it is missing a huge part of what originally made it so successful. Vocalist Alice Glass left the band in 2014, and has embarked upon a solo career, leading multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath to replace her with a new singer named Edith Frances. Given just how integral Glass was to the band’s punk identity, can Kath and Frances tap into what made Crystal Castles’ previous albums so special?
The most immediately striking thing about Amnesty (I) is just how familiar it sounds. Each of Crystal Castles’ previous albums have explored similar territory, but found different takes on their fuzzed-out, electro-punk sound. By contrast, Amnesty (I) feels like it lacks a singular identity. It doesn’t have the catchy melodicism of (II), or the coiled menace of (III), instead seemingly trying to strike a balance between all the different elements of the band’s sound. As far as albums go, it certainly sounds good, and there are many strong elements to the compositions, like the pulverising synths on Fleece, or the cascading arpeggios of Concrete, but nothing on the album sounds particularly exciting, which is in stark contrast to the anarchic spirit the band is known for.
Listening to the voice of Edith Frances, it’s impossible not to notice just how much she sounds like Glass. Kath has evidently sourced a vocalist to fit a very specific role, and allow him to continue to explore his preferred sound, but it’s hard not to feel like one is experiencing some kind of twisted role-play. Frances isn’t a bad singer by any means, and she almost certainly has more technical skill and composure than Glass ever did, but merely by trying to follow in her footsteps she is relegated to the role of imposter. Much as with the unimaginative soundscapes, it just feels like something undefinable is missing from the vocals. Perhaps if Frances and Kath had decided to pursue a new sound, or new dynamic instead of trying to recreate an old one, they would have had more success.
The tragic irony of Amnesty (I) is that it’s a safe album from a band who are adored for being anything but. Even after dissecting numerous statements from the former band mates, one simply cannot know what Glass’s contribution to the band was, but this album suggests that much of their energy and personality came from her. In attempting to recreate something unique and spontaneous, Kath and Frances have concocted a pale imitation of the former Crystal Castles. It looks like them and sounds like them, but the soul is missing, and as such, Amnesty (I) feels superfluous.