Nobody looks nice dancing to Purity Ring -- not the foxy industry types in the balcony's VIP section, not the blissed out college students, an undulating mass below. That's a surprise, as the music is made on the backbone of Southern hip hop-inspired snare drum beats, which, of course, can compel anyone to dance. Blame it on Megan James' spooky vocals, or a certain throw-back grooviness that belies the electronic manipulation.
The young Canadian duo, James and beat-maker Corin Roddick played their touring set in New York City on Friday and Saturday nights, just back from their European tour (with a brief pit stop at Miami Basel). Their fourth time in New York in the past year, they are completing yet another victory lap off the blow-away success of their debut in July, Shrines.
Roddick, just 21, mans an elaborate drum and synth machine and operates a light show of his own design: a constellation of cocoon-like paper lanterns that pulse in a shifting array of colors. James, up front, delivers a haunting gothic falsetto and earthly, gruesome lyrics, culled from her personal journal. She's spooky, with a voice like Grimes and the innate witchiness of Stevie Nicks, but with a certain earthy wholesomeness to her stage persona that makes a venue like NYC's Webster Hall seem intimate. Aside from vocals, she is responsible for a large, backlit gong -- made to look like a moon. Several times during the set, she removed the moon-gong's glowing bulb and held it under her chin as she sang, creating the shadows of a campfire storyteller. In this environment, the phone screens that now pollute all live shows seemed not at all like disturbances, instead organic and communal.
For an electronic band, Purity Ring is devotedly analog. They are the legacy of our creative climate: zines with Tumblrs, old fashioned photo washes on every phone. Aside from the handmade lanterns (created in conjunction with a small design firm), James designs and sews the pair's on-stage outfits. And where the synth work is clear and cold, full of digital stutters and James' crystalline voice filtered through a synthesizer, the lyrics are references to sea water and broken bones. (On "Obedear," she sings: "Oh but dear the sky is low watch/Fluent sea men rig their rudders so they'll/Graze it with their wind arrows.")
At just over an hour, the pair run a tight set. One album -- no covers, no special guests, no surprises. Not even an encore, though they may not be at fault -- having formed in 2010, they simply don't have enough material.
So far, the band has managed to sustain their creative momentum. Their first collaboration, the song Ungirthed immediately took off online. Critics wondered if the duo could sustain their vision for a full-length album. Proving that they could, the next challenge is in front of them: will new work sound the same? Last night, they debuted an unnamed in-progress song that was much in the vein of Shrines' chillwave, gothic sound, but with a slightly cheerier beat, as if the 18 months of touring had created a sunnier outlook.
Purity Ring continues their tour in the United States through January and then heads for Canada and Australia.
Listen to their track Belispeak II: