As I was looking at my calendar the other day I realized that it had been nearly a full forty-eight hours since I was last exposed to a unique, atmospheric electronic album. I was still tided over by Motion Sickness of Time Travel’s cosmic soundscapes but, nonetheless, the lack of a brand new, synth-based album that was both strange and alluring made me worried that I had perhaps lapsed into a coma and I was no longer experiencing reality. Right as I was about to stick my head under a train in an effort to come back to the here and now, I received Purity Ring’s new album, Shrines, and the world made sense again. Indeed, Corin Roddick and Megan James make the kind of music that fits neatly alongside groups like The Knife, Crystal Castles, and Grimes, but they have also been able to formulate their own remarkably assured sound. Their debut finds them dabbling in emotional turmoil, R&B melodies, and immersive synth lines all with a mature and fierce attention to detail.
The young duo began only two years ago when Roddick asked James to contribute vocals to a beat he was working on. From the beginning they were closely watched and each new song they released seemed to incite ever more exasperated praise. Something about the innocent lightness of James’ voice (which is strangely reminiscent a female Ben Gibbard) mixed with Roddick’s sparse electronic rhythms made a rapid and lasting impression on listeners. It’s not an unheard of story. In fact, many groups follow a similar trajectory, but most ultimately fade away when they are unable to turn their obscure intrigue into an actual decent album. Purity Ring have dodged that bullet for now, as Shrines is sure to solidify its fan base while not necessarily changing the minds of those that had written them off.
The album is as effective as it is largely because of Roddick’s stellar production. James has an intriguing voice and her lyrics (which I’ll return to later) are often fascinating but the album’s diversity of sound, its dark tension and its pounding energy all come from Roddick’s beats. He channels some of the more recent strands of hip-hop production, with hi-hats and lush melodies that, I daresay, rival the work of Clams Casino or Spaceghostpurpp. But at times his sound is far more lively. Standout track “Fineshrine,” for instance, beams with a graceful and playful abandon. The chopped vocal samples, both cheery and ominous, swirl around the intricately polished synth arrangement. The beat is sonically pristine but that it also has a distinct personality makes it stand out as a track worth returning to. “Grandloves” also shows that Roddick can take a standard R&B riff and make it sound pretty damn compelling. His production does a number of things right – while being dramatic it’s able to avoid cheesiness; it is not overstuffed; the small details are unique and gripping – but, perhaps most importantly, it is a pleasure to listen to.
James’ vocal work goes a long way toward making Shrines more complex and downright creepy than it otherwise might have been. Her lyrics are lifted from personal writings that have accrued over the years. She didn’t think anyone would ever hear them, much less sing them joyously as part of an irresistible hook. Indeed, the songs are often a collection of vivid images that collectively tell a story about James’ emotional landscape. Not necessarily sing a long material. But James instills lines like “cut up my sternum and pull” and “lofty thighs with lofty cries” with a distinct catchiness. On “Belispeak” she sings “Grandma, I’ve been unruly/ in my dreams and with my speech/ drill little holes into my eyelids/ that I might see you/ that I might see you when I sleep.” It is evidently a dark reflection of a relationship that James has had; the fact that it is sung in such a lilting manner makes it all the more disturbing.
Earlier in the review I mentioned that Shrines wouldn’t necessarily convert those that dismissed their first few releases. Admittedly, I was part of this camp. I found James’ voice to be wrong for the sound and while it wasn’t displeasing neither was it something I was rushing back to. So when asked to do this review I could have just wrote: “I kinda like it, you’ll probably like it more, the end.” I didn’t review it as such because that wouldn’t be a review at all. I tried to somewhat objectively assess the strengths of the album and highlight some of the excellent things that Shrines does, in fact, do. However, Purity Ring seems to be the kind of band that has fans that love Purity Ring immediately because, well, just because. In that sense, I was never going to capture what people love about the duo because I don’t organically feel the same way. Maybe that’s always the case but in this instance it feels more relevant. Purity Ring poured all their emotion and history into this album and if you can connect with that then that is going to define the experience for you. But if you’re like me you’ll probably still be able to play “Fineshrine” really loudly and enjoy yourself thoroughly while doing so. [B+]