The Trendiness and the Terror of Purity Ring's 'Shrines'

Purity Rings Shrines

Purity Ring is trendy. There’s no escaping that. The group’s from Montreal, occupies the lately busy intersection of electronic, synthpop and indie rock, and comprises two members whose roles you’ve already guessed. There's a male instrumentalist, Corin Roddick, whose synth setup looks like an octopus lamp, and there’s a female vocalist, Megan James, who is a soprano and brash enough for every critic to call her voice "girlish." (It’s not, not particularly.)

"Certain images recur -- creepers, cliffs, and especially body horror -- if a body part shows up, it will almost certainly get maimed by the next bar."

On debut Shrines, each song’s a single evocative word: "Belispeak," "Cartographist," "Shuck,” either a portmanteau or a particularly fetching word of the day. Each track’s heavily glitched out or de- then reconstructed, but not enough that you can’t imagine the glorious pop track it’d become if sent through a defragmenter. You can drown in this album as easily as any of the umpteenth synthpop albums this decade; if any genre trend’s not represented, it’s an oversight. The aesthetic is so strong that when you hear James’ first word on the album is “seawater,” you’d be forgiven for expecting an album of seapunk.

None of this is to dismiss Purity Ring, but merely to illustrate how tempting that is. Their sound is so immediately, recognizably polished that, as Nitsuh Abebe wrote, you think you know everything about them on one listen. The press makes a lot of Roddick’s dabbling in hip hop, but that’s overstated; yes, a few percussion patterns show up on actual rap songs, but you’d have to go to the outskirts of the genre, to Spaceghostpurrrp and Clams Casino for the comparisons to really work.

The press also slings comparisons to Grimes, Crystal Castles and the Knife at a rate of roughly two per story; of those, the last makes the most sense. Not musically, exactly, though the synths are shiny and minimal and dark at turns; not vocally, as James is processed to sound more pleasant, not more ghastly. It’s the world of the lyrics. Just as the Knife's Silent Shout comes off like a panicked or triumphant dispatch from some heady fairy tale, Shrines -- its lyrics taken from James’ personal journals -- evokes that place in the id nurtured by Grimm tales and folklore and where people (specifically, girls) are constantly beset by gruesome terror, where “purity ring” is best understood not as an abstinence pledge but a witchy ritual to ward off demons. Certain images recur -- creepers, cliffs, and especially body horror -- if a body part shows up, it will almost certainly get maimed by the next bar. "Tear our skin up out from the bottom," James sings on "Obedear"; “drill little holes into my eyelids,” she continues on “Belispeak.” Even the love song, ‘”Fineshrine,” turns its come-on into something grotesque where you engulf a guy in your “little ribs.” Serenade with care.

Purity Ring’s most effective when they root this horror in the real world, not some cultish abstraction or creep-girl cliché. “Belispeak” could be a telling of Little Red Riding Hood that makes the villain not a wolf but Red’s own tormented body, possibly pregnant (a throwaway line in “Crawlersout” backs this up.) "Grandloves," the most non-fantastic song here, might still sound like tectonic plates breaking and might still mention the making of “a bodice of your whistling skin,” but it’s a breakup song, and surprisingly moving. Guest vocalist Isaac Emmanuel sings “I’m in love with you but sick and tired of this youth / Want it to be easy, but I’m queasy at the thought of it,” a line that could well sum up the album. That’s a trend too – childhood nostalgia and creepy-childhood nostalgia both exist en masse – but you can’t fault Purity Ring’s execution (in both senses of the word.)

Shrines is out now via 4AD. Stream it at NPR.