Monday, March 9, 2015

album review: 'another eternity' by purity ring

It's a weird experience listening to Purity Ring.

See, when they finally released their debut album Shrines in 2012 after drip-feeding a number of singles, it immediately attracted a lot of attention for the plethora of bizarre contradictions on display. Gleaming, shimmering keyboards that were reminiscent of the cleanest dream pop and synthpop paired with roiling waves of wobbling heavy synth and hi-hats that reminded me of trap-favoured hip-hop. The ghostly vocals of Megan James paired with the cavernous oily moans of pitch-shifting, her sweet delivery paired with lyrics both intricate and innocent and yet shockingly graphic. The band was layers of impenetrability paired with a certain visceral sound that didn't need layers of deconstruction to understand - and when you did eventually parse out the lyrics, they did very much match that feel.

So why have I never been a huge fan of Purity Ring? Well, some of the reasons are pretty basic - I'm just not a fan of pitch-shifted vocals in any capacity, the sound turns me off, even though down-tuning is preferable to the chipmunk voice. But for me as visceral and borderline primal as the emotions Purity Ring struck up could be, it always felt they were blunting it through being needlessly obtuse. Don't get me wrong, I like intricate poetry, but the writing style didn't connect as well as I liked, almost being overwritten for their own sake. The dichotomies of Purity Ring reminded me a lot of St. Vincent's mid-period work on Actor and Strange Mercy, but St. Vincent always felt more grounded, mature and human in her writing instead of Purity Ring's approach of spiraling away into twee abstractions to take away from the plentiful gore if you thought about it literally.

So when I heard that Purity Ring was opting to go for more of a modern pop style, I was both optimistic and a little concerned. On the one hand, a stronger pop approach could lead to a more succinct and direct style of writing, but would the poetry be as interesting without the flowery language? And what would it mean for the instrumentation? So I took a look at Purity Ring's sophomore record another eternity - what did we get?

Well, it's an interesting case, because this record is definitely more accessible to a pop audience and if you ignore the lyrics, you could potentially find most of these songs finding a spot on mainstream pop radio. But here's the thing: considering how much modern pop, especially in 2013 and 2014, drew from Purity Ring's instrumental style, is the duo reclaiming the style by moving towards it, or simply sliding into a niche they helped build? And moving past that question, is the album any good? Well, sure, it's pretty good, but I would not call this album great or essential - in other words, for me, it seems about on par with the last Purity Ring record for me, in that it just isn't really connecting with me as strongly as I'd like.

So why is that? Well, let's start in instrumentation and production, where I'd argue there have been some modest improvements. For one, the pitch-shifted vocals are almost entirely gone from this record, which is a major plus, and there are some great synth tone choices that might not feel strikingly cohesive with the mix, but do stand out well. One thing is sure, you can definitely tell that Purity Ring's festival experience has played to the expansion of their sound - the low-end synths are heavier and meatier, hi-hats are occasionally swapped out for handclaps, the mix isn't so much cavernous or swallowed in reverb as it feels huge, and there are synth lines that seem to beg for an EDM DJ to remix the hell out of it. And I'll give Purity Ring this, when they can get a good shimmering melody going, they can make some gorgeous moments: the piano on 'heartsigh', the echoing reedy synth against the faded hollow beat on 'repetition', the gleaming keys on 'begin again', the eerie EDM shimmer against rattles and claps on 'dust hymn', the twinkle against the thunderous beat on 'flood on the floor' even despite the pitch-shifted vocals, and the hazy pianos of 'stillness in woe', But remember when i said that this record is reminiscent of mainstream pop - well, if we're looking for the primary area, it'd be in the problem I've had with modern pop music for the past year, with percussion and beats given much more priority than melody in the mix, which makes an already pretty similar-feeling album even harder to differentiate. Which is a damn shame because, as I said, the melodies are actually pretty damn good. But for as much as the beats are at the forefront, it bizarrely doesn't really translate into solid, propulsive grooves, especially on songs like 'push pull', where the jittery keyboard line seems to be from an entirely different song and doesn't match the beat or vocals well at all.

What this also unfortunately means is that it can be strangely easy to draw comparisons to other percussion-heavy pop acts, if only because of a recognizable formula, and while many critics have drawn parallels to Taylor Swift's 1989, a much more stark comparison for me comes to the debut album from Tove Lo, Queen Of The Clouds, a more transparently commercial record that probably owes a debt to Purity Ring's early work on some level, but also one that feels tighter and more focused than this album, especially considering both are covering similar lyrical subject matter and themes. Now unlike that record, another eternity isn't as narrative-driven, but it does have similar subjects and framing - dealing with relationships that were probably for all the wrong reasons and portrayed to keep all flaws in plain view. In this case, our protagonist seems to be doing everything in her power to insulate and absorb her partner's internal demons and problems, almost trying to save him from himself - and said partner starts exploiting said relationship immediately by being a capricious, manipulative asshole. What becomes disheartening is that you get the feeling the narrator knows she's being exploited, and yet she keeps coming back, not willing to give up a desperate hope that it'll somehow work. And it gets especially brutal near the back half, where she asks for him to give something to help her, and the illusion with which she's been deceiving herself finally shatters, leading into the ominous closer of 'stillness in woe', where they both confront reality.

Now, all of that sounds like pretty potent stuff, right, with nuance and emotional power - so why isn't it hitting me nearly as hard as it should? Well, part of this circles back to the songwriting - as I expected, Purity Ring did choose to make their songs more straightforward and dial back some of the lyrical  flights of fancy... which might have been great if they hadn't cut back most of the visceral bite of the lyrics along the way. While Shrines was a graphic record drenched in bodily fluids and visceral imagery, another eternity doesn't quite seem to touch that writing in the same way. And this comes to an issue of abstraction - even though the metaphors and symbolism took time to decode on Shrines, the style of the writing was so evocative that you almost didn't need to know what it all meant to get the feeling of it. But when you tone back the style, you don't get that same feeling, and considering Purity Ring is rarely direct, that power doesn't connect in the same way. Instead of cutting to the point, they cut off the point, which effectively delivers a similar if not less satisfying result.

And part of this circles back to Megan James' vocal delivery - and look, part of it is personal preference, in that the very girlish vocal affection she picks doesn't do a lot for me. But part of the strength of that delivery on Shrines was placing it in contrast with the subject matter and writing, and here the contrast isn't nearly as stark - or rather, it's different in a way that demands more vocal nuance. You need to buy into her complicated emotions beyond just pure vulnerability, and we don't quite get that snapshot into her anger and frustration. Part of this is the blatant pitch correction piled on, and on some level, I get why it might have been used. After all, when Kanye used it on 808s & Heartbreak, he was doing it to blunt his own humanity to detach, and you could argue Megan James is using it for an analogous purpose. But I'm not sure works as well, because there are other, subtler emotions that should be conveyed that the Autotune completely slathers over, which gets frustrating, at least for me.

So overall, I do like this album - for a modern indie pop record, it's pretty solid and it's easily listenable with well-written lyrics and some songs that really dig deep into a toxic relationship. But every time I listen through another eternity, I keep getting distracted by the fact that I should like it more than I do, which does knock it back from being great to simply just pretty good for me. As it is, it gets a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a Purity Ring fan and want to hear more of similar material that's a tad more accessible. Otherwise... well, if you like pop music in the past year, you'll probably dig this.

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