Artist: These New Puritans“We're anti-"experimental",” emphasises Jack Barnett of These New Puritans,“anti-distortion, anti-avant garde. I'm into narrative, precision, clarity. I'm not one of those musicians who is obsessed with inspecting their instruments and trying to extract every possible sound from them or trying to reduce them down."
“The musicians and artists I love, be it Benjamin Britten or Supa Dups, what I admire in them is their immediacy.”
As their name suggests, These New Puritans are a group on a very precise mission. Hailing from around Southend-On-Sea, and consisting of Barnett, his twin brother George, Thomas Hein and Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, they have established their reputation through a series of high profile live appearances alongside the likes of The Kills and Klaxons. They first came to prominence with their 2008 debut album, Beat Pyramid. Urgent, pared down, eyes on stalks, sharp as a stick, it was hailed by the NME as demonstrating a “span of ideas and singularity of vision that simply shouldn't happen to 20 year olds. They've created their own imperfect world.”
And so they did. They were occasionally lumped in with the continuing post-punk revival, but attend closer to its warp, grain and shine and there's a lot more embedded in Beat Pyramid. As Barnett points out, there are elements of dancehall, electronica and the sheen of post-Timbaland pop at work in there, while recurring motifs across the songs point to an interest in theme, structure and musical narrative that set them well apart from their scattershot guitar contemporaries. This was not a band who had shot their bolt on their first album but one who were only just beginning to unpack their ideas.
Now comes the evidence of that in the form of Hidden, their second album, a work so extraordinary in its range, ambition and clarity of purpose as to defy overall comparison with anything you have ever heard. Barnett is right; These New Puritans are not “experimental” in the hazy, blurry, hit and hope in the dark, sense of the word. He and they know exactly what they are doing. Hidden is an album which pulls together a host of unlikely influences – the later, more developed work of Steve Reich, with whose “interlocking rhythms” Barnett fell in love when he first heard them at a Leeds record shop, Britney Spears, Japanese percussion and, in particular, the great British composer Benjamin Britten, with whom These New Puritans literally share common ground – the Thames estuary in which both grew up.
Preparations for Hidden were rigorous and exacting. In order to score and arrange the woodwind, brass and choir sections which recur throughout the album, Barnett spent a frantic month learning notation. The upshot of this is the seasoned, unselfconscious accomplishment Barnett brings to the classical sections of Hidden. However, he is also conscious of the infamous, lazy habit of indie bands ladling their more sombre efforts with strings in a lazy attempt to denote gravitas. Barnett was sure to sabotage any possibility of that on Hidden.
“I wanted to bypass the usual practice of maintaining the 'dignity' of classical instrumentation, by using crappy dancehall - type preset sounds, or the sort you get on US pop and R&B records,” he explains. “Because the worst thing for ensemble brass/woodwind and classical instrumentation is that feeling of poshness, credibility, “authenticity”.
In order to exacerbate this, Barnett had Dave Cooley, whose CV includes names like Madvillain and the late, great hiphop producer J Dilla, mix the album in LA. “He's fantastic but it was a logistical nightmare!” laughs Barnett. “I had to live on LA time in order to be in constant contact with him. We tried all those live streaming technologies, but they didn't really quite work, so we had to use a mix of email and Skype. It took weeks, but it was absolutely worth it, in order to get his sensibility.” The result on the album is a stark contrast between the polar arts of sequencing and notation. “It was about bouncing between the two forms – getting the thumping pop sound of a Britney Spears with the melancholy you can get from brass and woodwind ensembles.”
Another vivid and striking feature of the album is its use of so-called Foley techniques, named after their creator, long beloved by those working in audio theatre – a simple example would be shaking sheet metal to replicate the sound of thunder on radio, although such methods are used in cinema too. “I always thought film soundtracks had a very crisp and sharp quality which you don't always get on CDs. That's what we needed. As the track says, this is “Attack Music”.”
And so, Barnett and co-producer Graham Sutton (of Bark Psychosis and Boymerang fame) went to great lengths to seek out and track down the exact sounds they were looking for. “We recorded sounds of knives being sharpened. and spent an hour in B&Q testing the sound qualities of various kinds of chain. Graham and I drove to various hardware stores and grocers getting the right components to make Foley recordings - we smashed (with a hammer) a melon with cream crackers sellotaped to it (simulating the sound of someone's head being smashed in). You can hear the melon on the track “Fire-Power.””
Then, there was the assembly of the guest musicians, including a pianist who assumed she was working on a regular minimalist classical album, and a school choir, recorded on a mobile set-up. These New Puritans are not the first to use children's voices in this way – The Durutti Column, Badly Drawn Boy and Talk Talk are among those who have done so in the past. However, none have quite achieved the eerie, Greek Chorus-like air of Hidden.
Finally, there was the hire of 6-foot Japanese taiko drums, two of which were too big to fit into the studio, as well as a 13-piece woodwind and brass band comprising two clarinets, alto flute, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, flugelhorn, two french horns, baritone horn, trombone, bass trombone and tuba. Now, the stage was set for Hidden.
It begins with “Time Xone”, a piece whose bleak brass beauty reminds of the sun rising over the flatlands of the Estuary. The connection is intended. For Barnett, there is a “very strong relationship” between the music and the part of the world he grew up in. As with Britten's Peter Grimes, this is a music that arises like mist from a particular landscape – flat, fertile, marshy, silently harbouring its own secrets. Then, in kicks “We Want War”, defiant and martial. “The idea is that it's a secret recording locked in a tree in a marsh in East Anglia, whose contents are unleashed like a new English Round.”
“We Want War” assaults you percussively from all sides. It's like being caught up in a ritual of whose purpose you are unaware. The knives are out, the sticks are clashing, the chorus is intoning. Musical worlds collide, combining harmonically dense sections with dancehall rhythms. “Three-Thousand” follows, and further reminders dance in the head – the hallucinogenic, shuffling beats of Madlib. Still, this is something undreamt of in pop before. Already, those who thought they had These New Puritans in a box, sealed and ticked, will be confounded and overcome – though the fact that TNPS have worked, among other projects, on the after show of Stage Of The Art, an art/dance performance at the Palais de Tokyo as well as the 2007 Dior Homme show soundtrack, hints strongly at their versatility and sense of theatre.
The scene seems to shift on “Hologram”, which patters with the feeling of subdued, qualified joy of Steve Reich's Tehillim, before the self-descriptive “Attack Music”. Then comes “Fire-Power”, which involves the aforementioned ritual sacrifice of a melon). Any narratives are in the mind's eyes and ears – These New Puritans have constructed an imaginarium whose contents are of less importance than the way in which it has been assembled, the creative and unprecedented use of contrasting sound sources, no more evident than on “Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie”, a climactic riot of sarcastically cheap dancehall-type presets, mournful brass, muttered incantations and strict, relentless percussion come together in a magnificent demonstration of all the forces that reveal Hidden's brilliance in plain sight.
Penultimately, on “White Chords”, the guitars come to the fore, a sort of deferred gratification, shivery and ecstatic. Finally, on “5”, the mysterious forces of Hidden recede, ghostlike, back into the marshes from which they arose. More than any other album you will hear this year, this decade, you're left wondering just what took place and immediately longing to experience it again. Precise mission well and truly accomplished. Another imperfect world created and finished to perfection.