The reflexive eye-rolling and collective sighing of “oh, can’t we do better than this” that happens whenever someone raises the notion of chillwave or witch-house as actual worthwhile genres is sort of hilarious. An approach to music-making is now instantly and completely dismissed by people who otherwise pine for “quality” and “innovation” and “vision” based solely on the perception that the genre is just too easy/trendy/simple … yet simultaneously too artsy/indulgent/pretentious. It’s a bizarre bit of cognitive dissonance, because, whether or not you like intestine-rattling bass mixed with woozy atmospherics, there’s no denying that the practitioners of this genre are mucking about in some legitimately zeitgeist-y areas of sonic exploration. Not as beholden to the beat (or, more accurately, the drop) as their EDM-addled younger siblings nor as preciously fey as their dreampop-loving cousins, the folks who are making witch-house—and yes, let’s just call it that—are splitting the difference, finding as much resonance in the boom of a bass as they do in the exaltation of a shimmering soundscape. It’s modern and unique and although it can often be irritating and witless, it can also very often be impressive and wonderful.
Toronto duo Purity Ring’s music falls firmly into the latter category. The gossamer counterbalance to the gloom of a fellow witch-house group like Salem, Purity Ring could not have found a more perfect label home than 4AD, where their weird-but-accessible take on darkly accented beauty is a perfect fit. And the sounds on Shrines are definitely dark. Despite vocalist Megan James’ breathy, near-angelic singing voice (which is occasionally autotuned to within an inch of being creepy), she’s often singing about some decidedly un-pretty things. (“Fineshrine” has a chorus that’s about getting your ribcage cracked open and your heart poked, while other tracks reference dead flesh left on hillsides, ghosts and other assorted good times.) Taken on its own, James’ vocal performance would be disarming, but when coupled with production partner Corin Roddick’s tracks—which evince the mad-scientist kineticism of a gifted and weird kid who’s just been exposed to the possibilities of electronic music, but not given the rulebook—the total impact is impressive. Roddick never seems able to finish a full bar’s worth of beats, with crescendos and clicks distracting him at every turn, yet somehow coalescing each track’s deep, full-bodied rhythms into something vital and complete. Yes, there are some moments on Shrines where Purity Ring falls back on some of witch-house’s less-lovely tendencies (the hip-hop flourishes of “Grandloves” are as out of place as they are predictable), but those moments are entirely forgivable, given the totality of vision and the strength of execution throughout the rest of the record.