In light of These New Puritans‘ concert in Hangzhou on June 6th (unfortunately, they will skip Shanghai), let’s review their most recent album, Hidden. Hope someone will be lucky enough to attend the show…
In 2006, while still peeling off their teenage skin, four bony goblins from Southend-on-Sea put together one of England’s most bewitching bands of the post-punk era. These New Puritans are Jack Barnett (vocals, lyrics, multi-instrumentalist, dictatorial mastermind), his twin brother George (drums, percussion), Thomas Hein (bass, sampler, drums), and Sophie Sleigh-Johnson (keyboard, sampler).
From the clash of strong polarities nothing ordinary can be generated; so if two twins and their pals, born and raised in borderland, also happen to have a common penchant for feudal military scenes and a mystical intuition for apocalyptic visions, it is natural to expect a compelling ensemble of musical weirdoes.
TNPS launched their first sonic assault in 2008 with the debut album Beat Pyramid for Angular Recording (cradle of quintessentially British bands like Art Brut and Bloc Party, but also of more transversal ones, like Klaxons). Although the first album was still somewhat rough and unpolished, glimmers of the future self-imposed grandeur were already clearly detectable, especially in the way drums march hastily throughout the tracks with a nearly dubstep limp, in the overall belligerent, yet solidly dignified.
The Liars-like clangors of Beat Pyramid have been tamed in the subsequent album Hidden (Domino/Angular, 2010) by a more disciplined and brainy approach. In fact, for Hidden, TNPS loaded the cart-ridge belt with an unprecedentedly wide array of instruments and props: children’s choirs, woodwinds, Japanese taiko drums, brasses, bassoon, piano, spooky chants, and cinematic effects. As a statement, guitar was almost totally banned from the set.
What simmers in the Hidden pot is a blend of genres – which I’m not even going to list – cunningly blurred into something fairly unique, although the trick of the classic orchestra has already been resorted to by many others before, from Pink Floyd through Matmos, to the latest: The Knife’s Tomorrow In A Year (but theirs is a very radical and über-conceptual affair).
In Hidden you can see classical opulence and its electronic silhouette branching out of an infrastructure made of several layers of beefy and nervous percussion; you can perceive woodwinds and brasses inflating the melodies into heavy sonic clouds that linger overhead like cryptic prophecies; you can hear the whispers of a disrespected Nature announcing its unavoidable retaliation.
The instrumental intro “Time Xone” takes you gently by the hand into the record, only to abruptly let you drop into a sticky maelstrom by the time the first notes of “We Want War” rumble ominously in the distance. The 7-minute anthem propagates ever more poignantly, as the percussion builds, latching onto disturbed choirs, sounds of swords being drawn, wooden claps, digital flickers, otherworldly voices…the manic accuracy of the composition induces a belief that TNPS are just an accomplice aiding forces once asleep to break back into life.
The march drawls on with “Three Thousand”, simpler, but embellished by an eerie keyboard line and some dark hip-hop streaks embedded in the rhythm.
“Hologram”, with its sugary coating and its playful interaction of piano and high-pitched voice, presents itself as the scherzo of the opus; but even so, the arrangements are conceived in a way that makes the overall melody slippery and by no means willing to grant a sense of relief.
Swords – and guitars – are drawn and waved high again for “Attack Music” and “Fire Power”. Horns and drums engage in anxious dialogue, paced by a nicely syncopated beat, but repeated to a point where potentially incisive tracks end up sounding like weary lullabies.
Aggressive in its restless blast of percussion, “Drum Court – Where Corals Lie” is more balanced and intriguing, thanks to blips of notes gushing disorderly out of the keyboards, and to distorted voices that add a pinch of the supernatural.
The majestic “Orion” stomps onto the battlefield with the solemnity of a grieving ceremony, sinuously woven around groaning chants and pounding drums. We find its main refrain in the interlude “Canticle” and again later in the conclusive “5”, proposed as fleeting reflections in calmer waters.
We finally find a moment of relaxing vulnerability in “White Chords”. The track recalls Xiu Xiu or Radiohead for the wobbly voice Jack emits and for the minimal electronic sound plot; only the melancholic humming in the background reminds us that we are still experiencing a timeless and heroically uneasy sonic adventure.
Although its seriousness casts a shadow of pretentiousness, Hidden surely is a mysterious creature, able to deploy a whole army of dreary yet fascinating music, and to supply that fix of synthetic and temporary fear that one always secretly craves.