Hailing from Montreal, duo Megan James and Corin Roddick cut their teeth in the band Gobble Gobble before they formed Purity Ring by happy accident. After an experimental dabble in the ways of hip hop and R&B, Roddick asked James to provide vocals for the track that would become the single Ungirthed. Ever since the appearance of that single, the wave of hype has been growing.
As it happens, Purity Ring deserve the big-ups, but in order to get anything particularly rewarding from Shrines, a considerable investment of time is required. It is an album that takes time to reveal itself fully, and a cursory dalliance is simply not enough.
Musically there’s nothing particularly spectacular about it. Roddick’s experiments have clearly paid off, and it is fair to say that much of the album is well produced, cleverly arranged and at times he has created a phenomenally beautiful landscape for James to inhabit. From the woozy beginnings of Crawlersout via the heavy wobble bass of Cartographist, to the ’80s electro of Belispeak, every nuance, reference and historical nod is perfectly executed. Yet there are times over the space of these 11 songs that his stylistic palette and studio trickery just don’t stretch far enough. The clipped synths and the woomy bass certainly create an uncertain, almost threatening atmosphere, but it also becomes a little tedious and threatens to engulf the real star of Shrines, Megan James.
It is James who turns these electro soundscapes into something tangible, making them simultaneously danceable and terrifying. For a band with a name taken from the Bush Adminstration’s push to encourage teen chastity there are an awful lot of body parts, dirt and squalor tied up in her lyrics. More disconcerting is her delivery, which is disarmingly innocent yet coquettish. It’d be easy to be taken in by her delicate style, but dig deeper and you’ll find her sternum being pulled open (Fineshrine), piles of bones (Ungirthed), hearts full of dirt and toothpicks, trembling thighs and oily fingers.
These songs are filled with images of lust, pleasure, pain and the stench of uncleanliness. There is sex here, but it’s gritty, organic, sweaty and just a little bit wrong. In fact the overall tone is dark, and James’ delivery only adds to the menace that lurks at the centre of these tracks. She’s more terrifying than the threatening bass tones, like a sonic version of Asami from Takashi Miike’s Audition. Nowhere is this more evident than on Lofticries where fractured skulls, familial signifiers and seeping fluids conjure up a scenario of murder and incest and yet Roddick’s backing track manages to make it sound like a dub j-pop number.
Ignore the undertones of James’ lyrics and you’ll find an album that provides a fair few moments of pop brilliance. The somnambulant electro-funk of Belispeak is an instant earworm, the well measured dreampop of Saltkin comes on like a disco incarnation of Cocteau Twins, whilst Amenamy manages to take death and decay and fashion a pure pop chorus that suggests “plugging up wormholes”. Sadly the hip hop influence of Grandloves is something of an ill conceived error and the R&B interjections sit uncomfortably in a song that would otherwise be a dreampop gem. But despite minor niggles, such as the slight lack of scope in sound, Shrines is a confident debut that justifies the hype.