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These New Puritans


[Angular; 2010]

By ; January 28, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Advance word for These New Puritans’ follow-up to their debut album Beat Pyramid was interesting, to say the least. It would sound “like dancehall meets Steve Reich,” singer Jack Barnett claimed, going on to add that “I’ve been writing a lot of material for bassoons.” Not only that, it would feature six-foot Japanese Taiko drums, a 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble and a children’s choir! As solid a debut as Beat Pyramid was, statements like this only put me in mind of the florid descriptions that Muse come out with in advance of a new album (we play a Tyrannosaurus Rex on one song, and then we blow up three Death Stars at the end! It sounds like Ennio Morricone meets Carl Craig meets Steve Vai!), but then you get it and it sounds like, well, fucking Muse. So would all this be hot air? Would we end up with Beat Pyramid Part Deux?

Short answer: no. When opener “Wind Xone” flutters into life, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve accidentally picked up something from Type Records. All swooning orchestral flutter and restless background noise, it acts as an overture of sorts. The fragility of it turns slightly ominous towards the end, the melody inclining toward the funereal. And while you can almost sense the storm clouds gathering on the horizon, nothing can really prepare you for what comes next. “We Want War” is nothing short of overwhelming. There’s a riff in there that comes on like Timbaland circa “Get Ur Freak On” but powered by vast atomic engines deep under the earth. There are Middle Eastern strings, powerline drones, thick bass fuzz, growling digitized voices, demonic choirs, a drowning orchestra and that enormous drumbeat crashing down like John Bonham playing with Thor’s hammer. It’s seven minutes long, contains more ‘movements’ than I can keep track of, and it’s an absolute blast. Production duties for the album are shared between Barnett and Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis and they’ve done an amazing job of making everything sound huge. “We Want War” is easily one of the strongest tracks on the album, and they understandably try to recapture that magic on a number of other tracks.

“Attack Music” uses what sounds like broken glass and sharpened knives (and quite possibly someone hitting Scott Walker with a stick) for percussion, with cut-up choral samples and bass wobble coming on like dubstep’s second cousin. It’s a more eerie, insular track with these slightly nauseous vocal coos haunting the background, and when the brass comes in it sounds like Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” being dismantled at a construction site. “Fire Power” strips the beat down to its skeleton, augmenting the clattering drums with malfunctioning electronics and half-buried guitar snarl. While both of these find themselves slightly overshadowed by “We Want War,” the band does manage to outdo themselves on “Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie.” It’s driven by this intense, almost brutal drumbeat and bass throb that’s almost reminiscent of black metal. There are synth squeals and Barnett muttering about how “this is the land where corals lie,” but it’s all swallowed up by this pummelling beat until this breathtaking moment where it suddenly breaks open. Over this utterly gorgeous Elgar sample, Barnett sings the album’s loveliest melody and it’s this spine-tingling juxtaposition before the beat returns and we sink beneath the waves again. It’s tremendous.

However, the album can’t be reduced to a series of attempts to recreate the might of “We Want War.” Elsewhere, “Three Thousand” sees them overlay an industrial-strength hip-hop beat with a synth pitched so low it almost sputters out and a bouncy harpsichord riff that sounds like it was swiped from a console game. Bizarre as it seems, it almost sounds like their attempt at grime, and it’s a hell of a track. “White Chords” is more traditional, playing at moody, fractured indie that ascends into a haze of strings. And closing track “5” sees the promised Reichian influence rear its head, although I detect some Arthur Russell in the mix as well. It’s a lovely way to end the album, in this sweet, chiming flurry that feels like it’s there to soothe the darkness that’s gone before.

Of course, not everything here is totally successful, which isn’t surprising given the ambition on display. At times, singer Jack Barnett’s vocals don’t seem to fit in amongst the sturm und drang of the music, an indie kid lost in the face of a wild chaos of his own devising. It’s as if his musical ambition has grown to be fully realised, but his vocal ability is struggling to keep up, particularly when he steps outside the son-of-Fall niche. The musical maneuvering also works less well on some tracks than others. “Hologram,” one of the album’s more downtempo songs, sprinkles slightly atonal lounge piano over a brittle groove. Barnett’s vocal melody never seems to quite sync up with the rest of the song, and while it’s an interesting sound, they could have done with trimming a couple of excess elements. “Orion” pushes things one ominous drumbeat and The Omen chorale too far, as well as wheeling a children’s choir on at the end. It’s still not a complete dud – the beat and malevolent synths in the verse are great – but it’s one of the rare moments where their reach exceeds their grasp.

These are all relatively minor quibbles, however; the record as a whole is a remarkable, impressive listen. In fact, over multiple plays it continues to reveal surprising flourishes and dark corners in even the lesser tracks. Not only have they managed to synthesize disparate influences into something coherent and original, but they’ve created some pretty extraordinary tracks with it. Bonus points are awarded for avoiding the trap of making this record too long. Despite the band’s penchant for grandiose gestures, the album runs a healthy 43 minutes and doesn’t seem to drag at any points. Overall, this is a bold step forward for the band; I can’t wait to hear where they’ll go next.


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