As the story goes, when lo-fi sound tinkerer Ethan Kath enlisted punk vocalist Alice Glass to sing over some of his chirping, tinny music experiments, Crystal Castles was born. In contrast to the duo’s razor-like, Atari-tinged output, there’s an almost organic elegance to the way in which Kath’s reclusive, romantic electro noise and Glass’s Johnny Rotten-esque brashness fused into a cohesive whole. Fellow Canadians Purity Ring no doubt have a similar aim: melding instrumentalist Corin Roddick’s brand of thumping, twitchy dubstep with singer Megan James’s dreamy innocence to craft something that’s both cerebral and innovative. Yet while Purity Ring’s debut, Shrines, sometimes approaches the former, it never quite achieves the latter. As the album becomes increasingly beholden to a cookie-cutter production style, it’s clear the “Next Big Thing” label that has been so firmly affixed to the group might be a bit premature.
Purity Ring basically co-opts wunderkind producer Balam Acab’s slow, watery sound, maintaining some of the subdued darkness found on Wander/Wonder while throwing in generous amounts of fidgety dub flourishes. There’s a temptation to use the oft-maligned term “witch house,” and certainly Shrines contains its fair share of odes to the electro-goth purveyors of the band Salem, but Purity Ring doesn’t quite possess the same level of menace. James’s voice is chaste, endearing, and well-behaved, and often, like on album standout “Fineshrine,” her Manic Pixie Dream Girl vocal qualities dilute the somberness of the music. Thus, Shrines is an odd and often dissatisfying mix of light and heavy. “Saltkin,” for example, plays like a doped-up Disney princess singing Haley Williams lyrics (“There’s a cut inside of me/Find the salt, sprinkle it around me”) over spliced-up chillwave, while on “Ungirthed,” James comes across like a mumbling, distracted three-year-old in comparison to the sober fog of pitch-shifted vocal moans that crawls beneath her.
Purity Ring’s worst and most common offense, however, is their overreliance on gratuitous self-sampling. One of Roddick’s favorite techniques is chopping up James’s vocal lines and using them to fill out the empty spaces that are the inevitable consequence of an overwhelming preference for drum pulses and other percussive noise. Yet, ironically, it’s in Shrines‘s quiet moments where Purity Ring excels: When Roddick lays off the sequencer buttons, as he does on “Shuck,” the results are hypnotic, rhythmic, and effortless. That intangible, instinctual quality is sorely lacking elsewhere, as many songs are eagerly overstuffed with competing mini-rhythms, superfluous lo-fi effects, and other needless padding. Purity Ring is trying to do too much, and true to the less-is-more adage, the busier Shrines gets, the emptier it feels.