Channeling the concise production and compositional depth of (III) and with new vocalist Edith Frances confidently in place, Ethan Kath returns to the glowering witch house of his roots to create what just might be Crystal Castles' magnum opus.
The first three albums of this Canadian electro-pop duo chart an interesting aesthetic course. If the self-titled Crystal Castles, their debut, was a gruelling Game Boy-glitch gauntlet through which only the most hardened 8-bit ravers would emerge unscathed, and their third album (III) was them ditching the glitch entirely in favour of a more, dare I say, naturalistic sound (recorded directly on first takes to cassette tape and without the aid of computers), then middle record Crystal Castles (II) can be seen as a happy medium between the two, employing the occasional, well-timed sonic slap-in-the-face to shake us out of our complacent trance. For me, it is the sense of balance achieved on this sophomore effort with which Amnesty (I) shares a spiritual kinship.
The ingenious album cover features four young girls in a playground, austerely dressed in constrictive black clothing. The chains on their swings and the braids in their hair come together to form a claustrophobic image that suggests imprisonment more than leisure. It’s a stark contrast indeed to the images we see in the news of the radical feminist group FEMEN, which utilises topless protests as a means of “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations: sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship, and religion.” Through their nudity they challenge us to look at them in a way we’ve been trained – through gradual media-driven machinations – not to: with unabashed honesty. No airbrushing; no plastic surgery; no disingenuously predicated sexualisation whatsoever. And yet it’s the raw eroticism of their acts that lends them such notoriety and polemical immediacy; constantly getting them arrested for “indecent” exposure. How the human body in its natural form can be deemed “indecent” by society whilst the mindless perpetuation of “decent,” gratuitously employed, corporate-endorsed soft-pornography can continue is thoroughly beyond me. But I digress.
Amnesty (I)‘s name is curious for two reasons. Firstly, the numbering conundrum: the parenthesis (I) suggests a wiping clean of the slate; a beginning again after the departure of Alice Glass. She and Ethan Kath made three albums together, and perhaps now that the dust from their split has settled – along with new vocalist Edith Frances coming in – it’s time to acknowledge the change of personnel and start afresh. Secondly, the word Amnesty: perhaps a reference to the FEMEN allusions of the opening track; a fight to assist those wrongly incarcerated for their public nudescapades. Maybe, maybe not. It certainly does make you wonder what they’re up to, though.
Continuing the exploration of political subjects that began on (III), opening track ‘Femen’ is an eerily atmospheric paean to the bravery of the aforementioned feminists. Its distressing video – the first to be uploaded to their Vimeo page last month – features footage of birds trapped in mist nets which functions as a poignant metaphor for the sexual manipulation that women still suffer under male-dominated regimes, both religiously (in the East) and socially (in the West). After ‘Fleece,’ a merciless segue that manifests itself through murderous knife-wielding synths, we are brought to ‘Char.’ A disarmingly tender ballad of sorts, its narrator seeks to console and protect a vulnerable ally: “Vow to caress your rashes / Vow to punish with lashes / You can hide inside my locket.” ‘Enth’ reprises the blistering rave-riff of ‘Fleece’ and acts as another segue into the spookily still ‘Sadist,’ an oblique look at the concept of brainwashing, perhaps of soldiers by their superiors; perhaps of young girls by their idols – its ambiguous phrases leave much to the imagination.
By now, a pattern has developed: rave, chill, repeat – although on Amnesty (I) it soon becomes clear that things are never quite as they seem, with the raves manic and the chills disquieting. It’s as though the party’s over and the pill we took is starting to reveal something scary; warping the night’s reveries into something twisted and strange. We don’t like it and we want to turn back, but we can’t. The void now gapes before us and all that’s left to do is face it, alone and afraid. It’s a terrifying image indeed, and one that – intentionally or not – Crystal Castles conjures here with such magnificence and grace that for a brief moment you might just believe that the ground has been swept from beneath your feet, and you’re falling…
Amnesty (I) is out now via Fiction Records