Music, at its best, creates its own worlds — which are then explored through the artist’s releases — and Purity Ring‘s Shrines is no exception, crafting a world of eternal darkness and neon architecture with the wonders of space: vast fields of stars, bloody streaks of nebulas and far-off galaxies, brilliant pinpoints of quasars, and the yawning spaces of black holes — always directly overhead, a world of magic and disharmony and, above all, of lust, the kind of raw, seething lust that is almost nonexistent in electro-pop. After coalescing it all into this fantastically terrible world, Shrines proceeds to sweep you across it like a solar wind, from mountaintops to mausoleums, until it is all laid out to bear before you, as real as any place you have physically been to, but lacking in any of those place’s comforts or nullities, someplace completely alien and unsettling and beautiful.
Few musical forms are more adept at crafting their own planes of existence than rap, and it is therefore not surprising to hear a distinct Trap influence in Purity Ring’s music. The stuttering, epileptic igniter ticks are there, as well as low-end, Noah Shabib-inspired bass hits and production values — what Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene referred to as “fumes from music that’s already evaporated” and, more specifically, “a single watery thud of bass drum” — and both are utilized in a way that their bombastic “trap” originators — or even their PCP-laced horror cousins in Chicago’s “drill scene” — could ever imagine. They go from all-powerful here to slithering in the background, hop-skipping around like rocks on a lake of ink, providing a distinct liquid spine for Purity Ring’s other sounds.
And what sounds they are! Purity Ring — Canadian duo Megan James and Corin Roddick — plays electric lungs and diaphragms, their synths groaning and gasping and moaning and breathing, creating soundscapes spartan yet starkly organic, like a machine desperately seeking sentience, or an HR Giger piece, and the result is a sound that is almost as unsettling as it is enthralling. Indeed, it could be almost too weird, too darkly strange, were it not for James’ ephemerally sweet voice, a clipped, chirping luna moth flitting above the tumult beneath her, working at once with the production and above it, tiny and delicately powerful and irresistible. Her lyrics are works of Beautiful Violence, visceral (“glide up in my sternum and hold my little ribs around you”; “drill little holes into my eyelids that I might see you when I sleep”) and sexual (“trembling thighs” and “beaded chests”) and achieve that most rarefied of honors: being completely capable of reading as poetry sans music.
“Crawlersout” is swelling and gentle, an easy step into their world, with James riding above the waves of Shrines’ strange lavender seas and breaking gently against alien shores. While the instrumentation starts off slowly, the lyrics do not, as “Crawlersout” containes some of the album’s most skin crawling lines, pretty little cocaine bugs. “They’ll cover the hills with their sweet flesh and soft nails,” James sings of her planet’s inhabitants. “They’ll sew their own hands into their beds to keep them crawlers out.” In what passes for a power ballad in Purity Rings’ existence, “Finershrine” is like Sleigh Bells slowed down on barbiturates and lofted with helium, a large, mellow, trance-inducing cut that blankets all within it like an overcast sky.
Stabbing sighs power “Ungirthed,” played off of sprinkling fireflies and some of the most intriguing and humorous sounds on the album, an open little field replete with an unnatural stream and crystalline grass reflecting the shimmering lights of the stars above it, while James dips like a damselfly before rising into a lifting hook. From here, the album drops precipitously to the funerary, extraterrestrial Egyptian tomb of “Amenamy,” airy sighs that James knifes through like shafts of light, before catapulting to the top of the mountains on “Grandloves,” a song whose climax comes late and bursts into a soul crushing display of nothing.
The grand, brutal strangeness of “Cartographist” evokes palaces and temples dedicated to some dark, space-dwelling cicada god, impossibly deep and low and ominous, a bowing subservience even James is bound to, her voice struggling to escape the bug-eyed nightmare god’s grasp and finding allure in its struggles and even more in its eventual success. In comparison, “Belispeak” is a soft industrial grind, soundtrack to a somnambulistic dance floor black as a shark’s eyes, the blackness broken only occasionally by flashes of light, whose lofting hook raises its occupants into ecstasy.
As if Purity Ring understood the terribly fantastic places “Cartographist” and “Belispeak” may take one too, “Saltkin” and “Obedar” work as vignettes, painting the same scenes from different perspectives, providing color and adding flesh to their world. The last glimpse they grant is the deepest, as “Lofticries” takes one into the gilded, marble laced bedroom. “Lofticries” is slow and pulsating, throbbing with sexual tension so powerful as to be almost pornographic, even without explicit or graphic content; it is a triumph of evocation, of atmosphere and air holding sway over the literal and conjuring emotions in the absence of such heavy handed stimuli, a love letter to the conceptual powers of the mind. After such a testament, “Shuck” is their simple epitaph, a short, sweet lullaby-cum-send off, a way of Roddick and James letting one off easy, a gentle reminder that one can return to their world whenever they feel the need
With the liquid, snapping spine beneath James’ voice and the throaty lungs straddling her, she and Roddick are equal parts hip-hop producers and avant-garde electropop musicians. On Shrines, however, they are architects as well, creators of a world as textured and realized and unique and fatally gorgeous as any realized before it, and likely as any to come in its wake.
(4AD Records, 17-19 Alma Road, London SW18 1AA)