Purity Ring – another eternity
“stranger than earth”, the fourth song on the Calgary synth-pop band’s sophomore album, is a trap song, an EDM song, and a 90s-tinged electronic club ballad, all at the same time. In the quest to figure out which cutting-edge, contemporary pop trope to incorporate, it chooses to go in every direction at once. Its big-synth heroics conjure up latter-day Metric, and this is a big, big problem.
Like Metric, Purity Ring staked their initial claim on layering melted-butter vocals over a fresh take on the sounds of the day. Where Metric rode in on a wave of sunny, troubled indie rock in the wake of Broken Social Scene, Purity Ring chose to pair Megan James’ ethereal voice to an electronic soundscape that bore more than a few resemblances to witch house, a meme-genre the internet had a brief fascination with in 2010-2011. The songs were a bit twisted, oddly barbed; they sounded like the jagged edges of a broken dream where everything seemed normal but you were left feeling faintly disturbed.
Like Metric, Purity Ring have made a fumbling grasp for a more widescreen acceptance. Metric followed the gigantic-sounding Fantasies with the boring synth-pop rigidity of Synthetica. Purity Ring follows Shrines with its opposite as well; the debut album’s danger and disturbing dream pop are replaced with a much safer, more straightforward pop. Pop, full stop: this is an album of modern hip hop, Avicii, David Guetta, and sub-indie balladry. This is not a band that ever took cues from Salem, or oOoOO. It takes no chances, and increases opportunity for market penetration.
I cast some aspersions on Imagine Dragons’ take on modern arena rock recently and the same goes for Purity Ring. It’s reaching to rock as many people’s faces off at once as it can, and every song feels like a forced moment. “push pull” comes the closest to their old sound, with its waterfall of arpeggiated synth notes tripping over themselves; everything else could be interchangeable on some indie rock radio DJ’s Saturday night club playlist. Everything is still on the verge of drowning under hazy reverb, but it feels contrived this time out and causes the tracks to simply feel not loud enough for the desired effect. Megan James can still sing like a stoned angel, of course, but Corin Roddick’s production is both pandering and lackluster.
Don’t even get me started on the conceit of stylizing everything in lowercase.
Imagine Dragons – Smoke and Mirrors
U2 is not cool. If last year’s “free album on your phone” debacle proved anything, it’s that this maxim is truer now in 2015 than it was even after the release of 1997’s Pop LP. Whether they were ever cool is a matter for debate; maybe The Joshua Tree had some real moments, or maybe we were all conned into thinking that by desperately ageing Boomers, and naive Xer college students and yuppies clamouring for a rock ‘n’ roll saviour to call their own. Regardless, their clenched-fist, Jesus-Christ-pose vision of arena rock has infected countless bands ever since, turning what could have been at least okay music into 50 Shades of Cringe.
Take Imagine Dragons for example. Listen to that delay-ridden guitar burbling under the intro and verses of the title track to their sophomore album, Smoke and Mirrors – blindfold me and I’d swear it’s The Edge playing. Further on and further in, it becomes apparent that, much like U2, Imagine Dragons can’t pass up the opportunity to take a simple hook and turn it into the biggest, fakest, shiniest diamond hook to ever grace your speakers. “I’m So Sorry” takes the much-loved, much-abused blues-rock stomp riff and puts it on a Jumbotron, making it into an arena-rock nightmare and somehow nicking the sound of KT Tunstall. “I Bet My Life” takes a modern indie-radio staple – the whole chooglin’ Of Mumfords and Mens thing – and opens it up wide enough to accommodate a Mac truck and an audience of office MIX-FM radio listeners. Their pathological need to turn every single song into fireworks and chanting choruses and football stadium cheers ruins what could be decent tracks. “Polaroid” should be a lot quieter, more like a ballad, stately piano and some fingerpicked guitar. Instead, there’s a distorted kick drum and a multi-tracked clap, like the band just listened to Queen for the first time and decided that “We Are The Champions” was what every song on Earth should ultimately sound like.
Don’t get me wrong: I love arena rock when it’s done well, like when King Tuff majestically rewrites the best of Cheap Trick into modern fist-pumper rawk. Smoke and Mirrors, though, takes the lazy approach to rocking hockey arenas, relying on moody verses to carry them into yet another boom-bang pyrotechnic chorus. One or two instances of it would be fun, exhilarating even, but on every single track? It becomes an exercise in gauging how little the audience is paying attention. Ultimately it’s the perfect album to fill in the rock side of the Top 40 FM mix, since it’s rock ‘n’ roll for the easily amused.