When I first saw the Blair Witch Project, I felt more empowered than scared (although it was a close contest). I had a similar reaction upon hearing Purity Ring’s dark and lovely debut Shrines. The music of the Montreal duo Purity Ring is characterized by two primary elements: firstly, an exquisite, maximalist attention to production that draws on deep wells of R&B and electronica; secondly, the vocal expression of the chthonic, or earthly, elements of the natural existence in all their mutable, violent glory. Compunded, the effect is rather like a watching a coven in a forest cathedral. Putting aside the question of whether witch house is a viable genre, Purity Ring sounds as though the phrase were invented to describe them alone. Transformation, body parts, and nature red in tooth and claw all figure prominently in singer/lyricist Megan James’ worldview but the unifying theme is the reemergence of the divine feminine, expressed in various satisfyingly frightening ways. Although her voice is heavily processed by Autotune and other effects, James is a vocalist who is has already mastered her craft at the tender age of 24. Her voice is fey and elfin and beautiful and threatening all at the same time, like Artemis as reimagined by Tolkien.
Corin Roddick, who is responsible for the instrumental production, has a shimmery, elegant aesthetic on Shrines ; the synths are wrapped around one another in ascending helicies over sparse R&B drums and there’s a terrible, brilliant clarity to the whole record, like blood on fresh snow. This is gorgeous electronic music that sometimes reminds me of the band the Knife, but it’s darker – and slower. I’ve listened to this record many times now and damn if the thing isn’t remarkably consistent from beginning to end. My roommate commented that the songs sound alike, but I don’t think that’s accurate – it’s the consistency he’s noticing. For example, Roddick likes to drop the synths out every time the electronic bass drum sounds, and he does this throughout the album. The timbres and production approaches are similar from song to song but the melodies are relentlessly subtle and complex. Fans of James Blake, the Knife, and Burial, will find something to love about this very strong debut from Purity Ring. It’s ironic though, that the prophetic voice of the natural world would set up camp in such a synthetic environment, isn’t it? Too slow to dance to, too digital to strum, Shrines will be on many critics’ 2012 top ten lists. Hell, it’ll probably be in my top five. “There’s a cult, there’s a cult inside of me,” James sings. Where do I sign up?