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Purity Ring: Shrines

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  • The dreamy Montreal duo begin their tenure at 4AD with a "chromed, hi-tech pop album".
  • published
    19 Jul 2012
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Available on: 4AD LP

She sings “I said once upon a time / it was you I adored.” “You look different.” is his reply. From Burial’s ‘In McDonalds’, a private moment between ex-lovers amid the halogen-lit commotion of after hours London.

It would take an even score of ivory-stroking torch songs to do what Burial did in under two minutes, and that’s convey the tangle of feelings experienced on running into the stranger you once loved. Little more than an interlude on 2007′s Untrue, with just two vocal chops and its lost-in-your-thoughts production ‘In McDonalds’ captured the realization of a peculiar new distance, the memory glitches and the recollection of an unsolvable situation that characterize that unique scenario. It wasn’t just the ghosts of rave’s past that Burial channelled, but also those of our own past. Almost immediately the indie kids were turned on to the emotive power of a huge bass and a kind of urban ambience. ‘Indie-bass’ was born.

Ever since Untrue, whimsical introverts have been merging folksy, moony whimsy with sub bins and all manner of ‘urban’ tropes, in an effort to recreate Burial’s street/ethereal heartbreak. First you had The XX – i.e the connecting agent between bass and indie – with their night bus balladry and ‘Fantasy’, followed by the troubadour soul-step of James Blake (later to collaborate with Bon Iver) who considered The XX to have “warmed his seat” for him. Then Esben and The Witch arrive with their ‘nightmare pop’, before I Break Horses give nu-gaze a little extra bass beef and some big beats. Pop ingenues like Oh Land sided with modish trend-chasing producers, while twee eccentrics like Bachelorette took Nelly Hooper-era Bjork and bass-ed up (see the brilliant ‘Not Entertainment’). Elsewhere you had straight-up post-dubstep popsters: Vision Of Trees or bass-music informed discophiles like When Saints Go Machine. And undoubtedly of the same family….the alt-r’n'b-purveyors like How To Dress Well and Active Child. And it’s about here where Purity Ring fall in the spectrum.

Signed with mega-indie 4AD and products of Montreal’s huge hipster-electro scene – home of Grimes, Jacques Greene and Drive’s Desire – male/female duo Purity Ring can stake a claim as the art-school set’s canniest dubstep fans. What puts them ahead of the pack – aside from Megan James’ brilliant cutesy/psychosexual lyrics – is a genuine loyalty to Shrines‘ other hipster-appropriated genre, hip hop. As a result, without compromising their rustic, Grimm fairytale undertone, they’ve turned in a chromed, hi-tech pop album. Dialling back their fey, touchy-feely indie side and cleaning up the ghosted-out abstraction of acts like Holy Other, they focus instead on invoking hip-hop’s bling-beautiful trappings, by method of combining the opulent Versace-vain end of 80s synthpop with 808 witchhouse; over that ever-present wobble bass. The final outcome is a trebly plastic-fantastic quality, rendering Shrines closer in tone and texture to coke-rap than ethereal indie. They even go as far as to include what the hip hop press like to call a ‘feature’. ‘Grandloves’, their most r’n'b track, sports a guest turn from singer Isaac Emmanuel of Young Magic.

If, by the second half, their songwriting nous tires and the slightly shallow formula grows stale, the album’s front end is stellar – a set of big, luminous under/overground pop songs as mystical as they are custom-made for decadent inner city cruising. Encrusted with diamond-sparkle synths and crystalline chimes ‘Amenamy’ seems both occult and Cristal-sipping; like the musical equivalent of bejewelled crucifix, spattered with blood. The excellent ‘Crawlersout’, meanwhile, is synth-y Ba$ed hip-hop bolstered by sidechained beats and pitched-down vocals. Yet it’s the quick one-two of ‘Fineshrine’ and ‘Ungirthed’ that drives the album home.

The former stutters and spits with kicks, glitched angels and 808 snares, before one of the album’s many big choruses is guided into pop bliss by the assured vocals of Megan James, who has a way with body-horror that would give the Chapman Brothers a chill. “Cut open my sternum and poke” she suggests on ‘Fineshrine’. That her lyrics seems always to be fundamentally about love – albeit couched in murderous obsession – is down to the processed sweetness in her voice.

However, a year on from its Soundcloud unveiling, album highlight ‘Ungirthed’ still seems like an entirely new breed of pop song. It’s hard to imagine how it would have existed five years ago, such is it’s very particular use of bass and, in turn, the complex interplay between the bass arrangements and James’ melodies. Like Jai Paul’s ‘BTSTU’, it’s unique pop music derived solely from dubstep’s singular language.

Further on down the line, the album begins to repeats itself, until they pull it back emphatically with closer ‘Shuck’.With its olympian bass melody, hi-hat and cherubic vocals it resembles something like A$AP Rocky’s ‘Leaf’ crossed with Ellie Goulding’s ‘Lights’. Of course, it’s also child’s bedtime story about self mutilation. But hey, that’s splitting hairs.

With the duo’s heavy use of reformed voice samples and washy synths, at it’s most woozy Shrines recalls Clams Casino; the producer who’s making a large dent on the sound of hip hop in 2012. Theoretically, that makes Purity Ring the one example of a hipster act operating in real time with urban music, instead of a couple of steps behind. Take that, Burial.

John Calvert

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