Electropop duo Purity Ring’s debut release comes with a vision so fully formed it already harbours concerns over what they’ll do on their next album. As tracks were released leading up to the album heckles were yelled from gallery: “They’re just doing the same song over and over again!”. Not true.
The biggest counterpoint, if you need one, is the darker, more melodic moments from Crystal Castles second album, with Purity Ring’s Megan James sharing Alice Glass’ unemotional and heavily manipulated, but somehow tender, vocals. Shrines also features that act’s taste for punctuating its bars with bright, loud keys, but Purity Ring are much less concerned with aggression and concessions to four-to-floor beats.
Producer Corin Roddick’s busy, stuttering, trap-rap-inspired percussion and dense post-dubstep bass throbs are offset by James’ ethereal vocals. It’s less dependent on retro sounds than similar releases from Grimes or Iamamiwhoami and there’s a focus on the vocal melodies crawling all over the backing tracks. When ‘Obedear’ almost falls into a half-time rhythm James drops out of beat for a second before scuttling back in. It’s a minor touch that speaks volumes of Purity Ring’s craft.
Violence is central, casual and ambivalent in James’ lyrics with ‘Fineshrine’, a discernable love song, inviting a partner to “Get a little closer, let fold / Cut open my sternum and pull / My little ribs around you”. On Shrines the physical overlaps with the emotional and love is planted literally within another, unruliness is corrected with drills and foreheads are punished. A range of interior trauma is externalised in this way, adding colour to James’ character rather than a gimmick, and it’s welcome to see music take note of Hitchcock’s old advice to “film your murders like love scenes and film your love scenes like murders”.
Contrary to premature criticism of resting on its laurels, Shrines only falters when it veers from its strongest path. The attempt at warmth and intimacy on ‘Grandloves’ sub-xx male vocals only mar the distinctive otherness that Megan James established over the preceding tracks. The meandering looseness of ‘Cartographist’ wants for a stronger hook in contrast to the brooding, gurgling, drowning ‘Belispeak’, which follows. One of the more direct tracks on the album, it boasts a majestic chorus before a sample of James’ voice becomes the central sound in an anxious dance groove like it was forcibly assimilated into something unspeakable. She conjures the darkness of the music on ‘Obedear’ and is oppressed by it on ‘Belispeak’.
More variety of tone surfaces on Shrines than the icy synths and immaculate production initially suggest. There’s manifest splendour as the Sun rises on opener ‘Crawlersout’, hits midday on ‘Amenamy’, sets on ‘Saltkin’ and dissipates to blackness by the time ‘Obedear’ comes around. And amongst all the semi-human detachment ‘Saltkin’ is genuinely forlorn.
In its detachment, in its obsessions and in its command of pop Shrines is bigger than its electropop categorisation would routinely permit. Purity Ring’s influences and tools, right down to Megan’s voice, are used to create something otherworldly and unafraid to delve into its own strangeness.