Purity Ring basks in dark staging, gloomy songs at 9:30 Club

January 15, 2013

The members of Purity Ring, the Canadian duo who played a sold-out 9:30 Club on Monday night, have clearly given much thought to presenting their mostly pre-programmed electro-pop in concert. The group’s staging and music complemented each other well, although both were as limited as they were vivid.

Musically, instrumentalist Corin Roddick unsettled the material, nearly all of it from the twosome’s well-reviewed mid-2012 debut album, “Shrines.” He manipulated both the machine-made sounds and singer Megan James’s childlike voice, dropping passages and changing pitches. Visually, the duo went for mystery, performing on a dark stage with lighting that suggested a cyberpunk “Macbeth.”

James wasn’t one of three weird sisters, of course. She was joined by Isaac Emmanuel — of Young Magic, the opening act — for a duet of “Grandloves.” Otherwise, she was the group’s only voice, although echoes, delays and loops made it sound as if she had plenty of company. The sonic treatments obscured much of the lyrics, but such words as “dead” and “bones” surfaced regularly, revealing the black-clad singer’s grounding in 1980s goth. In the throbbing “Fineshrines,” the band’s catchiest song and the 50-minute set’s closer, James conflated an embrace with an autopsy: “Cut open my sternum and pull / My little ribs around you.”

Such morbid sentiments suited the music, which combined stuttering rhythms with jaunty keyboard figures in the Depeche Mode fashion. The stark instrumental tracks often fused rhythm and melody in the manner of German techno or Balinese gamelan. During some songs, notably “Saltkin,” the midtempo beats developed a loping gait, akin to reggae and its doomier offspring, dubstep. As for James, it was unavoidable that she sounded a bit like Bjork, the patron sprite of techno-era sopranos.

A cult attraction since its first single, Purity Ring has moved rapidly from small venues — it played the Black Cat’s backstage little more than a year ago — to big ones. To command larger stages, Roddick and James designed a set that featured eerie effects. Over the musician’s heads hung lanterns that resembled wasps nests, and sometimes pulsed red or green. Roddick’s command module was decorated with smaller globes that lit up when he (or occasionally James) hit them. A bass drum, periodically thumped by James, was also illuminated when struck.

The rest of the lighting was behind the performers, leaving them mostly in darkness. The gloom was a visual counterpoint to the reverb that cloaked James’s lyrics and vocals. All this murk worked as intended, but someday Purity Ring will have to come out of the shadows.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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