Jeff Pearson, July 16, 2012
The camera is zoomed in on a dirty patch of ground as peaceful synthesizers roll through your speakers. The ground seemingly begins to breathe, pulse, as a flowery beat begins to boil beneath. Finally, blade by blade of grass burst through as the Edmonton duo, Purity Ring, completely envelop you with their dreamy and melodic brand of hip-hop-influenced electronic music. This is the way Shrines, Purity Ring’s debut album, opens itself up to you–piece by piece, showing you all of the many faces and nuances which will be prevalent throughout. As singer Megan James’ affected vocals delicately float atop Corin Roddick’s dark and lofty production, singing “They’ll weave their own souls into the frame to grow their foliage in / They’ll sew their own hands into their beds to keep them crawlers out,” on “Crawlersout,” the duo have practically covered the screen with bright green grass, twinkling with dew, filled the speakers with enchanting sounds so otherworldly that only the most primitive of earthly images can provide an accompanying visualization. Sometimes, it seems, the things we take for granted, like grass slowly sprouting and covering our lawns, can appear more incongruous and breathtaking when you take a closer look.
Purity Ring’s music is a lot like that. A cursory glance at Shrines will show a record which is at times both twisted and melancholy and somehow incredibly bouncy, with immediate satisfaction to the inner beat-head that resides within all of those who grew up in the hip-hop era. Each track very patiently bubbles just below the surface before practically overflowing with head nod-inducing propulsion. It isn’t until you take a closer look, however, when you can truly get a grasp on what the young duo has accomplished with this record. Beneath the black satin veil of Roddick’s mesmerizing production is a dark and disturbing world inhabited by witchcraft and human sacrifice. At twenty-four and twenty-one years old respectively, James and Roddick have delivered not only a cohesive and enchanting album well beyond not only their age but their short tenure as a group together, but also a densely imaginative universe in which to reside for the haunting duration.
The pair, previously members of Born Gold–at the time known as Gobble Gobble—never meant for Purity Ring to happen. While on tour, Roddick began taking an interest in experimenting with beats that were just as rooted in hip-hop and R&B as they were with extraterrestrial affairs. In January of 2011, Roddick approached James with the track “Ungirthed,” and Purity Ring was born. In a recent interview, Roddick pointed out the somewhat fateful way this project has come together, “We didn’t conceive of it as a long term thing, or even a project, it was just something to do. We were really happy with it though, and the response was amazing, and then the next tracks came together and we thought, hell, why don’t we make an album out of this?” That response to the track propelled the group to a contract with independent heavyweight label 4AD and helped make Shrines—no matter how thematically rooted in a nightmarish fantasy—a reality.
The abutment of Roddick’s futuristic hip-hop, with its militaristic snare drums and chirping synthesizers, alongside James’ lyrical themes, which call to mind faded photographs of long-gone ancestors washed out by what may or may not be a spectral being, is more than just a generational clash; Shrines is a modern bus tour through a haunted town, a Victorian ghost in a Gucci dress. The album has many conflicting perspectives; there is a prevalent childlike vision of the world, where deep-seated struggles are given monster masks to alleviate some of the weight they carry. Each eerie line is delivered with such an airy and ethereal delicacy, that there is a fine line between lullaby and nightmare. From start to finish, James opens her journal up to the listener, where she has obviously let her imagination run completely wild. On “Fineshrine,” she paints her sexuality black, saying “Get a little closer, let fold / Cut my sternum and pull my little ribs over you / Through arms, or maybe under, under you.”
The album has a lovely atmosphere when it comes to the production, however. Shrines has a well-defined sound, in which Roddick has given James’ voice electric clouds to float amongst, lush synthesizers raining down and swirling about with the wind. Roddick is a self-proclaimed perfectionist and there is no question here. Not a single overindulgence can be found across the forty minute span of the record, and he has fully immersed himself in the music in which he is emulating. The beats to “Obedear” and “Belispeak” would take any hip-hop fan back to their younger days, just riding around town with no true destination in mind, watching the sunset in the side mirrors pulsating with the bass as they tried to figure out just what was on the agenda for the night.
The interesting thing about Shrines is, though the imagery James conjures up throughout, which is disorienting in nature, is sung with such memorable melodies and attention to delivery that these songs are practically immediately engrained in your memory, and could perhaps even be called catchy. After multiple listens you’ll at least be humming along to lines like “Bead-weighted chests with lofticries / Lofticries with trembling thighs / Weepy chests and weepy sighs / Weepy skin and trembling thighs,” on “Lofticries,” unsettling descriptions seemingly of lost innocence of a young woman disguised in twinkling production and melody. This feminine corruption is a hugely prevalent theme throughout Shrines, as ever-present as the meticulously crafted sonic canvases and melodic structures that Roddick has provided. Despite this, James insists that Shrines is not autobiographical, but rather is merely a collection of her observations on the human condition as a whole.
In this regard, Shrines is unified and singular piece of art. Though thematically similar, each song serves to tell a different story, provide a different perspective into Purity Ring’s dark world. In this world, none of us are safe from not only each other, but from ourselves as well. It’s surreal to see this vision from through the childlike eyes with which the duo have given us to see, the innocent vocals and blissful instrumentation; the band’s voice is unique in that you can choose to hear it from the fringes, nod your head to an incredibly adept debut album, maybe hum along when you’re ready, or you can watch the grass grow, blade by blade, word by word, inhabiting the seedy human psyches of the characters living inside of Shrines.