Purity Ring played to a sold-out crowd at Urban Lounge. Photo: Karamea Puriri
Let’s begin with a history of avant-pop electronics. I was invited to see synthpop legends OMD (and Diamond Rings) at The Depot hours before Purity Ring was set to perform at Urban. I was torn between the two initially—Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, before breaking the American pop charts with John Hughes soundtracks, were pioneers in British electronic music. It was thrilling then, that I could catch their synth charms before seeing a young band push synth music’s limits even further. After meeting some midlife New Romantics whose kids are about my age and a terrific run on some of OMD’s classic tunes—“(Forever) Live and Die,” “If You Leave” (Pretty in Pink!), and my favorite of theirs, Architecture & Morality’s serene “Souvenir”—I tore myself away and flew towards Purity Ring.
Purity Ring opened for Neon Indian last time they were in town; I was under 21 then and super sad about missing them. I did see them last summer at Pitchfork Music Festival, though, in Chicago. The summer sun had set and Megan James and Corin Roddick mesmerized thousands of spellbound fans with their dream-hop fantasies into the tranquil humid night. Purity Ring is not simply a band that plays fantastic music, though. They are an event, a creation, and their music signifies not only pure artistry, but reimagines the process of experiencing a song, a lyric or an album. That’s why they’re perfectly at home on the label 4AD, and in the house that Ivo Watts-Russell built, among Liz Fraser, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and others.
They sold out their show a week in advance—and all post-weed-bros and twenty-something alcoholic snowboarders of the Wasatch Front had descended on Urban and were invading my comfortable position of Goth privilege. People were crammed awkwardly into the bar from the back end to the door and the whole place was lit with excitement—I’ve never seen the place so buzzing. The house music was perfect party pop—Nicki Minaj, Bieber, Taylor Swift—and damn it if the bros weren’t making the pre-show really fun!—ugh. My consolation was the enchanting effect of Purity Ring’s stage design, their strange pale cocoons, that hung creepily from above the stage over the crowd. Their magnetism was already at work, on me and the bros.
Blue Hawaii, a boy/girl art-pop couple from Montreal, played a fantastic opening set that harnessed the venue’s electricity into a really really really fun time. Raphaelle Standell-Preston, who fronts an excellent band called Braids, and Alexander Cowen, make up this duo, who apparently also call themselves Raph and Agor. They share many qualities with Grimes—they’re both from Montreal, they’ve released music with Arbutus Records, they’ve got great hair and both belong to the Cult of Mariah Carey. They’re also part of a Montreal community that Grimes’ post-Internet popularity has exposed to the buzzworld: Doldrums, Majical Cloudz, TOPS, Braids and of course, Grimes herself. Raph’s vocals, personality and performance are uncannily similar to Claire Boucher’s. Over Agor’s beats she sang and synthed her voice, looping and manipulating its pitch for an ethereal, darken dream effect. But at moments it felt like Björk was present and howling out beautiful sustaining choruses. The stage glowed hues of dark blues and greens as the two musicians gradually sped up their Montreal-style dance party. They took up a relatively small portion of the stage, which was crowded with Purity Ring’s setup—but they needed hardly any room to instantly psych up the crowd.
Minutes before the experience of Purity Ring began, Corin Roddick lifted the black veils (literal, figurative) from over his unusual instruments—Roddick triggers his percussion and drum kits through lighted orbs; Megan carries a lantern and bangs a glowing bass drum, as if to guide her audience through the performance. I felt like I was a primitive punk in a cave of enchantment, the two of them my guides through a discovery of music against the backdrop of the darkened venue. They opened with “Amenamy,” which is a microcosm of their aesthetic: Roddick’s blend of Southern hip hop affected synth-pop, Megan’s lyrical grotesque, their total absorption in creating something challenging and interesting and insanely catchy and cool. They did a shimmering version of “Crawlersout,” then scary “Belispeak,” (where Megan sings creepily: “Grandma, I've been unruly / in my dreams and with my speech”) and “Saltkin.” Beneath Megan’s grotesque lyrics of bodies and unruly biological forces is a vital life of metaphor: Their concerns are actually similar to those of most pop songs—love, fear, maturity, death. They went on with “Lofticries,” which is a lofty sounding song—Roddick’s arpeggios built higher and higher against Megan’s voice. Megan kept saying things to the crowd between songs, but her words seemed to be drowned in noise. They performed the strange, flickering “Cartographist” next and then “Grandloves,” where Megan sang rapper Young Magic’s lines.
They played “Obadear,” Megan was guiding her audience with that lantern of hers and the banging on her drum. She was trying to speak when shouts for “Grammy” sprung from the crowd. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular with all those bros—that Soulja Boy / Esther Dean cover. Megan’s vocals were absolutely stunning; she takes on both parts of the duet—Soulja’s rap and Dean’s chorus. The words don’t even need to fit Purity Ring’s aesthetic—they completely transform the song and make it their own. After doing “Ungirthed,” which is nice sounding but closets creepy ghostly lyrics, the duo played their album closer “Shuck,” the slowest and gentlest song they’ve got.
They played every song off of their brilliant debut record, last year’s Shrines, ending in finale with “Fineshrine,” one of this generation’s strangest and prettiest lovesongs (“Get a little closer, let fold / Cut open my sternum, and pull / My little ribs around you / The rungs of me be under, under you”). With that, Megan had brought us to the end of the journey, her little rituals completed, with us (well, myself at least), sacrificed by her sensuous spells of fleshy ecology and pop music.