Purity Ring Deliver Devilishly Dancey Off-Kilter Explorations on ‘Womb’
Alberta, Canada’s Purity Ring are largely responsible for helping shape the trajectory of indie music in the 2010s. The duo of singer Megan James and producer Corin Roddick impressed the world with the original sound of their 2012 debut “Shrines.” Their liberal indulgence of trap beats, cloaked in gothic abstraction, and fit to fetching tunes and rave-ey sound candy was like an overdue update on trip-hop sounds dating back to the ‘90s, coming to fruition just in time, a perfect reflection of the zeitgeist. The duo went on to remix artists such as Soulja Boy and Lady Gaga, and took a more overtly poppy direction on their followup, 2015’s “Another Eternity.” Soon they were penning tracks for the likes of Katy Perry. For their latest album, “Womb,” they circle back to the stranger stylings that made them stand out in the first place, striking a judicious balance between immediate and avant tendencies. The new set of songs are devilishly dancey, off-kilter explorations.
James and Roddick make it clear early on that they tend to keep their strain of pop decidedly outre. Opener “Rubyinsides” is warped and abstracted, with James’ angelic voice making its way through a fraught, chaotic soundscape, dodging all sorts of thunderclaps and torrents that loom and buzz about her. She floats gently in the troubled space, hinting at the album title, the idea of a space at once nurturing and traumatic. Amid emergent bass drones, swirls of static, and fractured beats with delayed fragments spaced out in jagged lines, she goes through the motions in hummable tunes, and the adventure begins. The wealth of detail in the production, and the sheer heaviness of the track makes for a thrilling introduction.
James’ lyrics are generally the stuff of open-ended imagery that works with the musical textures to affect you viscerally without exactly latching on to a concrete meaning. “Pink Lightning” is a case in point, with the entire song extending the titular phrase, and detailing the peculiarities of a storm. James has revealed that the track was, quite hilariously, inspired by an unsettling family reunion that was foreshadowed by a terrible storm — a detail that should make all the macabre stylings take on a whole new meaning. The song begins with pitched down vocals in Auto-tune, and a ramshackle, rickety beat plods along, taking jabs through the haze, until everything coalesces into a bold, hefty juggernaut upon the chorus. “Peaceful” continues with the familiar sonic machinery — elusive tones that flicker and dissipate, alien tribal handclap patterns, and a ton of noise. A voice lurking in the rumble turns out to be that of Jonas Bjerre of Danish rock band Mew, which James and Roddick have cited as an influence. As usual, James strings together an infectious melody, almost inducing a trance with her repetitions of “into the light.”
Next comes the promisingly titled “I Like the Devil,” with wispy percussion that skirts about, evoking some sort of demonic dance ritual, with killer wallops of throbbing bass in swelling envelopes, whooshing percussive detritus, and snares that trail off dub-style. James remains removed and suggestive, presenting some spectre of a female figure as a scapegoat with vaguely witchy whims. Her sweetly taunting singing meanders through the rustle, hovers over pristine piano, and meshes with synths, blurring lines to dizzying ends. On “Femia,” a song inspired by a family member’s death, James’ lyrics are full horrorshow fare. She sings, “While you were sleeping / You woke in a sea of dark liquid” in her perennial baby voice, making for a deeply haunting experience. The standard trap drums that have been a staple of the duo since day one are in focus here. With the fireworks of the first few songs having made their impact and left us at the usual scene, the track does occasionally, however, grow relatively perfunctory, suggesting Purity Ring have perhap settled too comfortably into a narrow niche.
Luckily, “Sinew” brings an exhilarating jolt, with more epic whirlwinds, massive, reverberating snares, and a bleeping video game pulse all creating an immersive soundscape. James’ voice cuts out upon the climactic line of verse, double tracked and treated in a perfect example of what makes this duo stand out — the most hi def pop production repurposed for decidedly unconventional, edgy sounds. “Vehemence” follows, beginning with a haze of backwards music and what sounds like sculpted guitar solo fragments. A tinny beat, sounding like island percussion a few levels removed, frames and carries the tune through another obstacle course. James’ melodies often have a lullaby quality to them, as is especially the case here. Her dainty utterances are accentuated by ominos low tones, and it all erupts into another readymade, singalong chorus, with stuttering snippets adeptly panned, materializing, vanishing, and dissolving, and carried out by a relentless clap-driven stomp.
“Silkspun” showcases all the duo’s attributes, dark, dance-ey, edgy and infectious. With evocative synth strings, a basic, brittle backdrop, and snares spaced far out in the distance, the song has the feel of proceeding with a relentless groove in infinite empty space. As if this weren’t a gripping enough sound, serious bass adds the final touch, and it all gets rather rave-ey. James has spoken of how water is a recurrent theme on the album, and this song is perhaps the most overt exploration of this, with references to drowning. From the emergent mood arise cryptic entities that James describes as “scriptural.” If this all seems a bit far out, one could hardly hope for subject matter more sonically fitting.
The aquatic theme grows even more apparent on “Almanac,” with a central pulse that evokes waves and ripples in a vast space, at once serene and turbulent. James’ vocals strike like emergent thoughts not fully developed, her utterances mirrored in the low register, buttressed by airy whispers, and blending into the gossamer backdrop. It’s a bizarre love song if there ever were one, with lyrics like “You are my almanac.” On the other hand, considering that an almanac reveals the positioning of celestial objects and what not, this somehow seems just about right. The album ends as strongly as it began with “Stardew,” another track that shows James and Roddick at their most effortlessly effective. The track begins with piano and pristine, dangling chimes, A beat picks up, and in a flash, it’s all more bright and buoyant than anything else on the record — candy raver fare set to twee bubblegum melodies. There’s an infectious synth refrain, an optimistic chorus, and an eventual circle back to the chimes, which fade out its percussive trails.
“Womb” shows a marked disavowal of the accessibility that characterized “Another Eternity,” and a return to the edgier sounds of “Shrines.” That isn’t to say that the new album is difficult listening by any means. Every song demands attention with its primal, gothic aesthetics, vivid sound candy, mobilizing percussion, and infectious melodies. Purity Ring have centered on a sound that taps into the psyche through so many of the channels by which music achieves potency. There’s an elusive mix of darkness and light, motion and abeyance, form and fluidity. The chief drawback, if any, is the lack of variety in James’ singing. Her delicate, childlike vocal persona is one well-suited for the music, contrasting the abrasive undertones and clashing clatter in a longstanding trip-hop tradition. But her inflections and intonations are so uniform that the shtick gets a bit old. Still, she and Roddick do what they do so well that this is hardly cause for complaint. Purity Ring has always stood out for Roddick’s larger-than-life production, and this is more impressive on the new album than ever. Finally, the cryptic, haunting lyrics fit the soundscapes perfectly, and frame all the songs in a cohesive artistic exploration of the titular “Womb.”
“Womb” is available April 3 on Apple Music.