How does one account for the meteoric rise in popularity that Montreal duo Purity Ring has seen over the course of the past year and a half? Sure, that question might seem a tad hyperbolic, but Purity Ring has gotten further on the basis of five mp3s than most bands are lucky to get after a couple of albums and years of touring. At the beginning of 2011, Purity Ring was, for all intents and purposes, not even a thing that existed in the collective consciousness of the music world. Yet by the time their debut album Shrines was announced in April it had long been one of the most anticipated albums of the year. How did Megan James and Corin Roddick get so far on so little?
To be fair, the duo didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Born out of the frenetic glitch-pop outfit GOBBLE GOBBLE (whose current incarnation, Born Gold, released their excellent debut last year), Purity Ring could have easily first been seen as a side-project, especially considering the sonic link the two projects’ music share to this day. And, while nobody really wants to be called a side-project, it does come with the benefit of a built-in fanbase and built-in publicity. It also explains the fluidity of their collaboration since the very beginning.
If Purity Ring had some plan to break into the music world with one song, they couldn’t have chosen a better one to do it with. Their debut single “Ungirthed” plays like a revelation, an amalgamation of current, yet seemingly far-flung sounds – the chopped and screwed voices of southern hip-hop and witch house, the bright synths of modern indie pop, and, yes, even a slight nod to the notorious wubbing bass of American dubstep – all brought together for two and a half minutes of perfect pop. “Ungirthed” wasn’t just a great song by a promising up-and-coming band, it was one of the best songs of the entire year released by anyone, a bold, perfected mission statement from a group who seemed fully formed right off the bat.
Since then, the duo has refused to release anything that wasn’t fantastic. Where most of their contemporaries might release a torrent of material to ride out that first wave of hype, Purity Ring let the attention come to them, releasing a total of three songs during their first year and waiting well into 2012 to start releasing music from their debut album. “I really like perfecting things,” Roddick said last summer, just after the release of “Belispeak.” “Otherwise, I don’t want anyone else to hear it.”
Almost a full year later, enter this debut album. By now, James and Roddick are finished introducing themselves, and Shrines does more to fill in the gaps connecting their previous work than it does to branch it out into many unexpected directions. Exactly no one who’s been following Purity Ring will be surprised, for example, by “Crawlersout,” the album’s synth-soaked opener that’s garnished with the familiar pumping bass and ghostly, warped vocal samples that have been a hallmark of the duo’s music since the beginning.
But, in lieu of surprises, there’s a cohesiveness and clarity of vision to Shrines that really adds to all of the material on here. All of Purity Ring’s previously released songs – both last year’s releases and Shrines’ lead-up singles – sound even stronger and more at home in the context of this album, as if this is where they were meant to be in the first place. The other songs, meanwhile, elaborate on the style that those songs established, lending the album an evolving, but unbroken, atmosphere.
Of course, none of this is to say that Shrines offers absolutely nothing we haven’t heard from Purity Ring before. In fact, many of the previously unreleased tracks find the duo at their most idiosyncratic and weird. “Grandloves” stands out in particular as the only track thus far to feature a male vocal, a half-singing-half-rapping Young Magic sample that ends up further highlighting Purity Ring’s hip-hop influences. Elsewhere, on tracks like the lurching “Cartographist” and starry-eyed closer “Shuck,” Roddick’s instrumentals reach new levels of tension and creepiness, their brooding minimalism skirting farther away from pop than Purity Ring has yet ventured.
Couched within the darkness of Roddick’s beats, James’ pretty, girlish voice might seem like the lone beacon of light in Purity Ring’s music, but even a cursory listen to her words confirms just the opposite. Lyrically, James uses uniformly ominous and unsettling imagery to communicate decidedly abstract, unnameable feelings. And yet, she also has a talent for twisting the grotesque into something strangely beautiful. “Drill little holes into my eyelids,” she intones on “Belispeak,” “so I might see you when I sleep.”
Her fixation on the corporeal shows up throughout the album: ears ring, teeth click, sternums are cut open, hills are covered in flesh, bellies speak, bodies house cults, lungs become crowns. Sometimes this kind of imagery relates directly to the themes James is exploring, but often it has just as much to do with the way she pushes her language into the hyper-literal. In the world of Shrines, to let someone into your heart is to be cut open and dwelled in; to dig into someone is to take a trowel to their body. Elsewhere, James conjures paranormal visions of ghosts, bones, spirits, and rituals. “Shuck” brings the body horror and cultic imagery to its logical extreme, ending the album at an unsettling, yet appropriate apex. For the most part though, James’ poetry has no obvious form or narrative. Instead, her words tend to be left open to interpretation, and her ideas are best taken in over the course of the album’s running time.
In fact, the whole record is like that. Shrines often operates like a series of paintings, each of its pieces a variation on a theme, the full breadth of the artist’s vision only realized within the context of the whole. And so to fault it all for starting to seem a bit more similar is ignoring its greatest strength. Shrines functions just fine as a collection of Purity Ring’s work thus far, but it also functions as a singular, cohesive artistic statement, a capital-a Album, and that’s much more rewarding. So don’t call them one-trick ponies just yet. Let’s wait and see what they do next. Knowing James and Roddick, we might be waiting for a while, but at least we’ll have Shrines.