Going to see Purity Ring at the Teátro Joy Eslava, a stone’s throw from the very centre of Madrid — the un-plaza-like plaza of Sol — felt like an act of defiance in the wake of events less than twenty-four hours previously up the road in Paris. What happened at the Eagles of Death Metal gig in the Bataclan was the cowardly and evil work of deluded fantasists, and we were not going to let them stop us going to see one of our favourite groups of the last few years. There was a frisson on the crowded streets of Madrid last Saturday night and a sense of giddy watchfulness inside the venue. This city knows all about terrorism: an Islamist attack on March 11 2004 claimed 191 lives; and the Basque terrorist organisation, ETA, spent the best part of thirty years inflicting atrocity after atrocity on the city.
I had seen Purity Ring once before, in 2012 at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival. The circumstances surrounding that gig and last Saturday’s couldn’t have been more different. That Primavera Sound gig was at the end of May, and Purity Ring’s stage was about five hundred yards from the blindingly blue Mediterranean. When Megan James beat the huge, Lambeg-style drum that preceded the duo on to the stage, it looked and sounded like she was summoning ghostly Phoenician ships into port as some sort of pagan rite. Apart from the mysticism and fantasy that infused that sunny outdoor gig, it was a happy affair, a pleasant interlude before more serious acts. (Grimes was up directly after them, and Wilco and the XX later that evening). Back then, Purity Ring were in embryonic stage: they had yet to release their first album, and members, Megan James and Corin Roddick, looked like a high-school band who had been swept up by the positive reaction to their first couple of singles and were breathlessly touring the world in a dizzy state of disbelief that they were making a mark on the music business.
Purity Ring v.2015 are now one of those serious bands I mentioned above. This years’ release of their second album, Another Eternity, which received positive reviews in all the right places, has seen a rapid ratcheting up of their profile and sales, and it would not be inaccurate to now describe them as one of the most popular alternative electronic acts on the go. I was struck by a thought a couple of numbers into their set: in six years’ concert going in Madrid, I had rarely seen a band with so dedicated a following. Typically, a Madrid crowd for a band of Purity Ring’s drawing power (1-2,000 punters) would be made up of ten per cent fans and ninety per cent curiosity seekers, out for a few libations and a chinwag. So, for example, the Bat for Lashes, St Vincent or Warpaint gigs I’ve been to contained a core of fans who knew the words, boogied to the music and kept their traps shut during the quiet numbers, but a majority of rubber-necking, beer-swilling members of the gig-chattering class. Purity Ring’s crowd last Saturday was almost entirely made up of real fans — people who knew the words, recognised upcoming songs after two or three blips, and went crazy or chilled out at all the right moments. Compared to most of those in the crowd around me, I felt like a lesser fan (and this is as someone who bought both albums the day they came out and can play a mean fingerpickin’ version of “Lofticries” on his guitar!).
From their performance last Saturday it is easy to understand the fierceness and solidity of the support they receive in places as far away from their native Canada as Madrid. Their music (aptly described in some quarters as future pop) is peculiar enough to offer a challenge to the listener and mark them out from their peers, but poppy and accessible enough to avoid appearing willfully weird and alienating potential fans at the first listen. If anything, Another Eternity has more veins of mainstream running through it than debut album, Shrines, but there is still a sufficient dose of out there on its tracks to provide nourishment to those of us up for a challenge.
Another Eternity also saw the addition of a good deal of oomph to the band’s sound, and this more than anything else marked Purity Ring v.2015 out from the band I saw three years ago. Whereas before, Purity Ring were a band you closed your eyes and sway-danced to, in the Teátro Joy Eslava they hammered out enough beats to have the crowd bouncing off the walls and ceiling. Megan James, a dramatis persona along the lines of Kate Bush, prowled the stage, living out the spacey, surreal and sometimes disturbing imagery of her lyrics. She has that ability to draw the eye with the slightest of movements and send a shiver through the crowd with the simple act of stepping up on to a monitor. A top-drawer frontwoman, she had the measure of the crowd from the off, and with coyness and a large dollop of cool mystery (rather than the in-between-song banter and shtick you get a lot of these days), she presided over her following like some species of inter-planetary princess over her cloned minions.
Drama is always a word that is always in the air where Purity Ring are concerned. Within their songs there is movement, transport to fantasy worlds, floating, falling, entering and being entered. In the context of a gig, there is the dramatic tempo or shift in sound between one song to another. There is Megan James. There is Corin Roddick behind his sci-fi rig, banging away at those glowing pods, summoning future music from what appear to be relics of a lost civilization. For this tour, Purity Ring have upped the stakes on the drama front with the most wonderful of light shows. I had never seen the like of it: what appeared pre-show to be a series of curtains of strings with knots in them was in fact a matrix of multispectral LEDs which lit up in various ways depending on the song or section of the song. In a small venue like the Teátro Joy Eslava, the effect was powerful.
So we had drama, we had oomph, we had an emotion-bending light show from Purity Ring. We had a stronger, more confident performance than I had expected. We had charisma. We had intensity. Was there anything missing? Unfortunately, yes. As is the case with many electronic outfits, there was a lack of that spontaneity and improvisation and communion with the crowd that can turn an 7/10 gig (my overall mark for Purity Ring’s show last Saturday) into an unforgettable experience. While you don’t expect the likes of Purity Ring to pull out the Fender Stratocaster and do a fifteen-minute Neil Youngesque noodlefest, you would like to be presented with some material that’s not on the albums, a cover version maybe, or at least a few re-works or re-edits or mash-ups. Purity Ring were so note-perfect compared to on record, that I did wonder for a while if they were singing and playing live. But this is just a small criticism of an overall excellent gig.