Second Look: These New Puritans – Hidden

For its 10-year anniversary, Domino Records is re-releasing the sophomore album from English post-punk revivalists These New Puritans, Hidden. Coming just two years after their debut Beat Pyramid, Hidden essentially dismantled everything the Barnett brothers – Jack and George – had built with their first record. The post-punk genre was basic at the time; the 2000s were mostly known for Joy Division homages like Interpol, though there was always something worthwhile from Nick Cave, who will be loved in every decade he releases music.

For These New Puritans though, the road to success was not as clear as their peers. Hidden isn’t your standard post-punk record – it possesses a very icy exterior, with unsheathed knives clashing and clanging in front of claps and horn sections. With his love of Steve Reich propelling his muse forward, Jack Barnett set These New Puritans in a direction of constant evolution. They’d push the envelope further into neo-classical territory with their equally mesmerizing subsequent album Field of Reeds, but for Hidden they started out small…ish.

The original press release for Hidden called out the tremendous woodwind and brass ensemble the band brought into the studio, with Bark Psychosis mastermind Graham Sutton assisting production duties. There’s a childrens choir too, and, lest we forget, Salem’s Heather Marlatt adding saccharine vocals throughout. Hidden has an all-around masterful appeal. It’s heavily indebted to dubstep and minimalism, but it’s not afraid to wear these influences on its sleeve – it relishes in them, and its relentless pummeling of your patience is its most garish quality. The instrumental opening “Time Xone” is about the only breathing space offered on the album, and it’s only two minutes long.

Obviously, many will look to “We Want War” as the highlight. It’s the type of song only These New Puritans could have made, and so much of what got people animated about Hidden was on display in “We Want War”. At almost eight minutes, it’s the band’s most beloved track to date, one that transcends whatever their 2019 return album Inside the Rose was trying to prove, and acts as the rolling boulder down the hill that gets Hidden kicked-off proper. When listening today, “We Want War” functions the same as it did then, rolling multiple songs in one, beginning with an opening dominated by percussive blasts and finishing with orchestral angels. It seemed wild at the time, but in 2020 the transitions don’t feel as jarring, they are welcoming and natural.

The flourishes of electro-pop on “Hologram” tell a different story than “We Want War”. In place of the onslaught is sparkling radio pop, accompanied with that 13-piece ensemble. The prepared pianos outline Barnett’s motivations for the album, disguising the dark electronica in pitch-perfect pop. The fact that its in the first half of the record and sandwiched between two drastically darker thoughts (“Three Thousand” and “Attack Music”) makes “Hologram” truly an unexpected moment on Hidden, but not the only one. “Orion” functions similarly on the flip side, acting as a reprieve from the chugging beats that fall on either side. The primary focus of “Orion” is on the choral arrangements pushing Barnett’s vocals deeper than normal, and despite using several of the same samples to varying degrees, it is far more downtempo than expected.

At the time, These New Puritans were a traditional four-person unit – the Barnett brothers, multi-instrumentalist Thomas Hein, and keyboardist Sophie Sleigh-Johnson. Hein left after Field of Reeds, but Sleigh-Johnson departed even earlier than that, in 2012, and sadly doesn’t receive the deserved credit for her style that managed to flip back and forth between genres, basically adapting to whatever Jack Barnett threw at her. George contributes the glass shatters and other percussion, working succinctly with his brother’s dynamic use of video game sounds with little hesitation. Hidden marks the collective’s most collaborative effort; every contributor here is felt and thrives within the confines of the album.

Another element that deserves more attention is Jack Barnett’s lyricism. It doesn’t get very much credit, and I feel a lot of that is due to the repetition he employs on tracks like “Fire-Power” with its almost nauseating recurring “I’m in the fire, fire, fire” and “My words evaporate.” Granted, this track is dominated by the instrumental background – claps, organs, and thick bass beats are all coloring an image of this group in the studio with intensity while recording.

Barnett’s lyrics are more impactful elsewhere, and he saves the best for last on Hidden’s penultimate track “White Chords”. “Respect the invisible / I can’t respect what’s not there, I avoided you / Sloping concrete becomes a shoulder (words inscribed in air),” he sings, while showing off more diversity in his voice than elsewhere. Instead of just delivering and repeating, Barnett legitimately sings on “White Chords”, as opposed to the chanting that fills most of Hidden’s other moments.

With Hidden being such a cherished post-punk classic, it’s unfortunate that the extras included on the second disc of the new Hidden MMXX are mostly lacklustre. Aside from the previously unheard “5 Mallets”, the extras largely consist of isolated instrumentals – the pianos from “Hologram”, brass and woodwinds from “We Want War”, and then there’s a pithy chamber remix of “Hologram” that adds nothing to the original. It’s all wrapped up with two live tracks. This doesn’t taint the experience of the album, but it does seem like unnecessary fluff for only diehard fans of the band. Having the isolated instrumentals might draw in fellow beat makers who want to include them in their own music, but for the average listener these won’t be revisited that often.

The major standout from the bonus material is the live capture of “Irreversible-En Papier”, which was the band’s encore during the Hidden tour of 2011. Originally set as a film, this audio version slightly guts the performance, but what it does provide is a sonic interpretation that allows us to enjoy separate pieces without the visual. It goes on to prove how dedicated These New Puritans were, even at such a young age for its primary songwriters – both Barnetts were only 22. Having such a wealth of knowledge on neo-classical music is what drove them to reimagine themselves from the perspective of a post-punk band. As with most reissues though, the flaws are more glaring than ever, and they may not hurt Hidden, but the bonus instrumentals remove some of the mystique that the final product had.

Hidden is still a great album. It’s a risky move for a young band, one that paid off with critical praise that helped catapult it up the UK’s Independent charts and landed it as NME’s album of the year in 2010. Where the band went from this point may have been even more polarizing, but Hidden remains their most fully-formed work. Its messy parts and repetition might grind away some people’s concepts of post-punk and beat-driven music, but in the end Hidden is still a masterclass in tireless perfection. The Barnett brothers took the task to heart, and the outcome is a remarkably ambitious and rewarding experiment.