Heaven, London, Wednesday June 19
Being a small-to-medium-sized band with gigantic ambitions can be an awkward thing, and nowhere more so than in the live arena. One suspects that if Jack Barnett had his way, Heaven’s dressing rooms would currently be occupied by a Harris hawk, frittering away the hours between soundcheck and showtime by angrily flexing its talons and staring hungrily at the bar staff.
As it is, though, These New Puritans have had to bring new opus ‘Field Of Reeds’ – the making of which, lest we forget, involved the aforementioned angry avian, the man with the deepest voice in Britain and a day spent shattering panes of safety glass – to the stage in stripped-down style. Tonight, that record’s booming phalanx of brass and woodwind is represented in humble fashion: two trumpets, one French horn. Indeed, as Jack stalks out from the wings, bass guitar strung over his skinny shoulders, These New Puritans pretty much resemble that thing they’ve appeared desperate to escape: being, you know, a rock band.
Being, loosely, ‘Kid A’ as played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, the reception granted to ‘Field Of Reeds’ has been mixed. Some have hailed it as brave and ambitious. Others have dismissed it as pretentious audience trolling of the first order. It makes more sense live, for several reasons. The horns, soft and serene on record, blast with a surging intensity. New vocalist Elisa Rodrigues is a smouldering presence, her soft tones a neat foil to Jack’s post-punk mumble. And the band focus in on the record’s more dynamic moments: the tumbling coda of ‘Fragment Two’ gets an extended roll out, giving Jack’s brother George a chance to give his drums a proper battering.
Yes, these songs can be strange and obtuse, but as the set unfurls, there’s a sense of narrative that’s almost Game Of Thrones in its dramatic unravelling. The first third is all ‘Field Of Reeds’ material, bucolic and dreamy. For the second third, dark clouds gather, and tracks from ‘Hidden’ gallop up like bloodthirsty Dothraki: the bashment warstep of ‘Attack Music’, and a brutal ‘We Want War’, which sees Jack fluttering his arms around like an evil sorcerer in search of an appropriately nasty incantation.
Then, the tension lifts. ‘Organ Eternal’ is a soft, ecclesiastical keyboard refrain that finds Jack mumbling of the “things you leave behind”. And the other side of a brief encore, the booming tones of basso profundo Adrian Peacock – just sampled, he probably doesn’t come cheap – ushers in a gorgeous ‘Field Of Reeds’. The band have a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for being cold souls, but this is the sort of emotional swell that made, say, Radiohead or Sigur Rós into 21st century arena-fillers. The question now is whether TNP will remain a small-to-medium-sized band with gigantic ambitions, or grow in stature to realise them. The hawk is waiting.