Strange Ranger emerged from lockdown transformed. With a heavier, more expansive sound, the band’s 2021 mixtape, No Light in Heaven, explored the sustained restlessness and dread of a moment when no one knew what the future would bring. A deafening blast of harsh noise in the opening moments of “In Hell” set the tone for a chaotic new sound as indebted to 1990s rave music as it was to the band’s Pacific Northwest indie-rock roots. The music also seemed to respond to the material realities of the pandemic with a more meticulous approach to digital production, incorporating sequencers, drum machines, and elaborate vocal effects that complemented their palm-muted riffs and larger-than-life choruses.

As pandemic restrictions lifted, the group continued to chase this adventurous spirit with glossy big-beat singles and a steady live presence in their adopted homes of New York and Philadelphia. The two cities’ seemed to collide on their output; as Philadelphia emerged as the regional capital of indie, emo, the “new wave of American shoegaze,” acts like the Dare, Frost Children, and Blaketheman1000 have come to occupy an adjacent place in downtown New York—all while sharing bills with Strange Ranger and contributing club-ready remixes to the expanded edition of No Light in Heaven.

All of this has brought new attention to the project and left Strange Ranger at a fascinating turning point. Yet Pure Music, their first full-length release since No Light in Heaven, doesn’t feel all that far removed from its predecessor; its 10 tracks are built from the same synth pads, drum beats, and narrative structures as before. But where the previous release was consciously divided between its synth-pop experiments and riff-driven alt-rock singles, Pure Music blends the two approaches, as vocalists Issac Eiger and Fiona Woodman sing about the search for inspiration during an extended period of uncertainty. The result is some of the sharpest, most clear-eyed songwriting to date.

Despite the Day-Glo exterior, Pure Music largely operates in a lyrical mode born out of the group’s time as a more conventional guitar-driven project. A dense assemblage of synth pads and arpeggios provide a sturdy foundation for Eiger and Woodman’s voices on “Rain So Hard,” as loose drums and a quivering guitar tone swell to enormous heights in the hook. “I heard you write about culture/What’s that mean?/Is it sort of like everything?,” Eiger sings, voice rising from a soft whisper to a raspy shout. Read as a dismissive exchange between acquaintances at a party, it’s the kind of line that might seem better suited for a pithy 1975 cut, but Eiger’s earnest inflection lends it a wide-eyed charm.

A world-weary sadness persists in spite of these occasional glimmers of humor. It’s present on “Rain So Hard,” where a few moments of miscommunication leave Eiger distraught about a breakup, and his frustration continues on “She’s on Fire,” an anthemic single that doubles as the album’s emotional peak. Synths and sequencers give way to massive drums and a chorus-drenched guitar line akin to the Cure or Cocteau Twins, while Eiger works through his disillusionment, leaning into a soaring rock-radio chorus that feels like a genuine breakthrough. The euphoric moment not only provides the album with its title—“And I could die in pure music”—but it also serves as a mantra for the group in their ongoing search for transcendence. In moments like these, the influence of rave music seems to take on a more personal shape. It isn’t just that songs like “Wide Awake” or “Dazed in the Shallows” tend to sound like Porches by way of Primal Scream, or an old Andrew Weatherall remix of My Bloody Valentine at their most Madchester. Strange Ranger allow every instrument to echo the same gnawing frustration, and eventual insight, at the heart of their songwriting: a sense of purpose that makes their searching feel like a destination in and of itself.

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Strange Ranger: Pure Music