Album review: These New Puritans – ‘Hidden’ (Angular Recording Corporation)

Former students of post punk step out of the classroom into a league of their own

It’s pretty obvious really, but noise is the heart of music. Yet, in a world where an addiction to compressed soundfiles has led to musicians smothering their songs in reverb and digital wash, sound is suffering. It’s exciting then to see [a]These New Puritans[/a] living up to their name and dragging a fresh clarity of sound into the world. You might want to go and buy some new speakers, because listening to every sharpening knife, oboe, cough, mutter, dense syncopated beat, delicate piano, and choir on ‘Hidden’ through your complementary iPod headphones is like looking at a photocopy of a Bruegel, or watching The Wizard Of Oz in black and white. Trust me, this is a record worth ram-raiding Bang & Olufsen for.

With their second album, TNP have extended themselves beyond any rock’n’roll terminology and instead are rubbing shoulders with sound artisans like Mira Calix, exploring noise like a photographer explores light. Fittingly then, as they wave goodbye to [a]The Fall[/a]-loving art-rock group they once were, the record begins with a Last Post of sorts as, from their own Ypres, TNP roll out ‘Time Xone’’s mournful brass farewell to everything you thought you knew about this band.

The plaintive serenity doesn’t last long though – it’s shattered by a bassline more like a grenade than anything else, as track two shuffles into its dank bashment battleground and the first words of the record are heard: the computerised tremor of ‘We Want War’. The song may begin as [a]MIA[/a]’s ‘Galang’ reimagined as some kind of concrete avalanche, but over the course of seven minutes it dreams itself somewhere totally different, as horns and a choir take the digitalised tribal hand-claps skyward. It descends again with the sound of a knife drawn; a harsh and obtuse end to 10 of the most surprising, expressive minutes of music I can remember since I was given [a]The Velvet Underground[/a]’s debut record on my 14th birthday.

To say this record is a collage of its predecessors would undermine the invention behind it, and while there are reference points (most clearly [a]MIA[/a]’s ‘Fire’ on the self-consciously titled ‘Fire-Power’), they are mostly dispossessed of their origins through the band’s découpage of them. Like William S Burroughs did with words, they scatter their broad influences – everything from Michael Nyman (‘5’), to [a]Miles Davis[/a] (‘Time Xone’), to Tricky (‘We Want War’) – less like fans than iconoclasts; ripping up the fabric of music history for their own ends. It’s tempting to see the band’s dictator, Jack Barnett, standing in a studio full of shattered vinyl, obsessively destroying every accepted musical phrase and deferential cliché in an attempt to make something very rare: a record which sounds new in every way.

As is often the case with music heralded as some sort of progressive landmark distant from trends and revivalism, ‘Hidden’ isn’t an easy work; but it also isn’t without soft moments. Glowing between the steel monsters of bass and terror is ‘Hologram’, and while it’s hardly ‘The Long And Winding Road’, its channelling of [a]Thelonious Monk[/a]’s fingers over stadium rock drums, harpsichords and looped coughing is far less confounding and far more beautiful than it sounds on paper. Of course this glistening mood is soon shattered by some beast called ‘Attack Music’ – a squelching nightmare of broken glass and chants. This song is later reprised on the thunderous first suite of ‘Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie’, a song which corkscrews between a death march and a strange children’s operetta which might have been scored by Moondog. It’s an intense journey, but after the pummelling they’ve given us over the previous hour, These New Puritans hand us the album’s most comfortable moment: ‘White Chords’, a monumental stomp, which at their dissonant peak, [a]Radiohead[/a] would have been proud of.

Throughout, there is an obtuse lyrical preoccupation with conflict between the natural and the man-made, the pastoral and the urban. Trees, bracken and rivers are treated with reverence, while concrete and wires are mistrusted. This comes to a conclusion as on final track ‘5’, a largely instrumental, minimal piece which groans the album to an end, like the steamboats on [a]Björk[/a]’s ‘Volta’. Jack whispers that the trees and the sea are beginning to talk – and here he reaches full circle: from the mourning of ‘Time Xone’ to the rebirth of nature.

It’s no trite environmental message, though, but an exploration of the abstract tension between nature and culture, reflected in the record’s constant clash of organic orchestral poise and the industrial dissonance of beat music. It’s genuinely surprising, beautifully wrought and announces TNP as one of the most powerful artistic forces in Britain today.

In a world where bands like [a]The Horrors[/a], [a]The xx[/a] and [a]Wild Beasts[/a] are becoming Britain’s scene leaders, is it impossible to imagine These New Puritans’ uncompromisingly brilliant second record finding wide popularity and recognition? I doubt the band give a shit, but I really hope not.

Alex Miller

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Click here to get your copy of These New Puritans’ ‘Hidden’ from the Rough Trade shop