Photos: Nick Balleza. Words: Philip Runco.
“We also spend an incredibly long time on a track,” Purity Ring beatsmith Corin Roddick told Pitchfork earlier this year, explaining his project’s sparse output. “I really like perfecting things. Otherwise, I don’t want anyone else to hear it.”
For better and worse, that perfectionist streak was on full display Wednesday night, when Purity Ring visited Black Cat’s backstage for a set equally short and sweet. Roddick was true to his word: while Purity Ring says its “90% done” with a debut LP, anything not currently up to snuff of the rest of the Canadian duo’s sparkling and hypnotic bangers was tucked away for another day.
What remained amounted to almost 30 minutes of music, and a concert that felt less like a headlining gig and more like a segment of a larger showcase. When the duo’s other half, singer Megan James, reappeared after set closer “Ungirthed”, the young and enthusiastic crows squealed in anticipation, only to be informed that the act didn’t have any songs left for an encore. Cue the house lights and the slow realization that this much buzzed about performance was indeed already over.
But though Purity Ring may not yet have a catalogue to justify a headlining tour, it does have a fully realized and impeccably crafted sound. Everything – the pitched-down vocals, the smeared synths, the wobbly beats – is bewitchingly perverted, but the forward momentum of Roddick’s beats and the strength of James’ vocals give the sonic experimentation a firm pop base.
This combination of pop sensibility and outré flair has unsurprisingly made Purity Ring hipster bait, and despite having three songs to its name, the act still managed to fill the modest-sized concert hall. The bevy of hoisted smartphones dutifully recording each song spoke to this being a performance that attracted an audience more eager to prove its attendance than fully take in the music.
Purity Ring has drawn frequent comparisons to The Knife, and while Roddick and James certainly channeled the mutated and gothic pop of Scandinavian duo in its set’s most feverish moment (see: “Belispeak”), it also showed off a less sinister side that recalled the off-kilter, starry-eyed dreampop of Bjork and High Places. In these moments, Roddick’s backdrops were more steady, the plinking of his synths more playful, and everything came together to imagine LCD Soundsystem’s “You Wanted a Hit” made woozy on syrup. If this band has crossover potential, it’s to be heard in this sweet spot.
It’s worth returning to that High Places comparison. The genre-bending Brooklyn duo set the Internet abuzz a few years back with a defined sound and set-up not unlike Purity Ring: adventurous soundscapes equally skittering and trunk-rattling, paired with naïve and impressionistic female vocals. There are certainly some differences between the two acts’ aesthetics – not to mention production value – but Purity Ring in fall 2011 is coming from a pretty similar place as High Places circa fall 2007.
Watching Purity Ring at Black Cat though, you begin to notice a more significant distinction: unlike High Places, Purity Ring really wants it. The duo was intent on not just recreating its music, but delivering a performance. And perhaps owing to their years of prior experience in more traditional bands, Purity Ring has a keen sense of the dramatic to pull it off.
The house lights were used sparingly, as the duo was illuminated in the warmth of a dim lamp and the orchestrated splashes of light that would flare up behind them in coordination with the music. Occasionally a light glowed through the standalone bass drum that James struck methodically when she wasn’t slowly contorting her body to Roddick’s beats.
If Purity Ring’s music could already considered “haunting,” this was the band driving that idea home.
As for Roddick, he was slightly less composed, thrusting and twitching as he manipulated sound. He manned a set-up of samplers and an intriguingly bizarre configuration of what looked like pipes, and it looked like he was having a blast doing it.
It would be tempting to say he looked out of control, but that would fly in the face of everything we know about these control-freaks.
Purity Ring was preceded on the night by Doldrums, a one-man electronic act from Toronto whose sound is heavily indebted to the swirling psychedelia of Panda Bear. In fact, listening to him on Wednesday sounded like “Good Girl/Carrots” gone supernova. This is clearly a good thing. He wasn’t gaining many points for originality, but his the fluid barage of noise could be entrancing.