These New Puritans


Rewind to late 2006. A teenaged Jack Barnett is sitting in a pub in Shoreditch, where his band These New Puritans are about to headline a fashionista-thronged gig. He’s listing influences: Nigerian hip hop compilation ‘Lagos Stori Plenti’, 13th century Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti, Swedish electro-jazz pioneer Lars Horntveth, the American literary obscurantist Russell Hoban. He’s enthusing about Southend as "the least culturally developed" place in England. "It’s inspiring, it’s free," he elaborates. "There’s no history – just the future."

Jack’s the boss of These New Puritans. "It’s quite dictatorial," a bandmate confirms. The dictator sets out his vision, which extends beyond his dream of touring with Roots Manuva. "We could write any song," he says. "We want to be everything." He talks about the live show and how he enters a "trancelike state" to "create something that’s above us". When an elderly Chinese man passes through the pub selling flashing bracelets, he thinks aloud about recruiting him for the band. Eventually he leads his unexpanded quartet onstage to play a grinding, militaristic set. The highlight is ‘Elvis’ and its apposite, insistent refrain of "We’re being watched by experts".

During 2007, the plot thickens. The live show develops into a disorientating barrage of beats and shouting, with treble and ornamentation confined to the margins. Soon, however, These New Puritans’ music gains a shamanic, psychedelic quality. A debut album, Beat Pyramid, arrives early in 2008, and it’s symphonic, erudite and beautifully packaged. Promoting it on tour, Jack resembles a Roman centurion in his suit of golden chainmail. Suddenly, the possibilities seem almost limitless, yet – after a long period of silence – even the loftiest expectations will be surpassed.

To mark the dawning of a new decade, These New Puritans have resurfaced with a masterpiece. Hidden is a questing, post-everything collage piece that largely eschews guitars in favour of pummelling beats, brooding electronics and the ominous chanting of a children’s choir. Throughout, the shape-shifting soundtrack is overlaid with cryptic commentary, in which Jack seems to offer a cheerful take on looming environmental destruction. At every turn, Hidden wrong-foots the listener. Continuity comes solely from its unwavering magnificence.

A false sense of security is invited by the gentle, soothing brass of instrumental opener ‘Time Xone’, before detonating drums cue the seven-minute liberal-baiting monolith ‘We Want War’. Beyond its tribal rhythm and Jack’s typically contrarian lyrics, ‘We Want War’ recalls Mezzanine-era Massive Attack with its multiple layers and textures, not to mention the paranoia in Jack’s vocal ("The leaves on the floor must be five metres deep," he whispers).

Taut, militaristic and obtuse, ‘We Want War’ sets the tone for much of what follows, particularly ‘Three Thousand’ and ‘Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie’, each of which is powered by a relentless whirlwind of brutalising beats. Elsewhere, the album’s obsession with the elements is established by the lilting ‘Hologram’ – which gleefully and topically imagines the world disappearing under blankets of snow – and deepened further by the scattergun ‘Fire-Power’.

Three tracks in particular emphasise the awesome scale of These New Puritans’ ambition. The first is ‘Attack Music’, which ropes in a group of Hackney schoolchildren to join Jack in delivering a baffling chorus: "It was September, harmful logic/It was September, this is attack music…" Young minds duly corrupted, the Puritans later outdo themselves with the flabbergasting ‘Orion’, a choral epic that could serve as an ideal soundtrack for a remake of ‘Ben Hur’ shot in space. Completing the album’s envelope-pushing triumvirate, ‘White Chords’ comes equipped with Jack’s best and most surprising vocal to date, one that’s simultaneously wracked, tender, coy and solicitous.

After the righteous maelstrom, the album eases to a graceful conclusion with ‘5’, in which music-box tinkling gives way to a sleepy reprise of ‘Orion’. The journey, and with it These New Puritans’ transformation, is complete; and suddenly the bold claims of the early days seem like modest understatements.

And so to January 19, 2010: These New Puritans are back in London’s East End, nervously showcasing Hidden during an in-store performance at Rough Trade East. As it turns out, they haven’t yet worked out how to do the album full justice but, in the attempt, Thomas Hein and George Barnett – facing each other over two drumkits – wage an impressively fierce battle. Jack Barnett’s guitar, meanwhile, plays a largely ornamental role as he busies himself with vocal effects boxes and assorted electronic gadgetry. Sitting next to Jack, keyboardist Sophie Sleigh-Johnson delivers the songs’ melody lines with calm aplomb.

It’s an enjoyable set and, with its occasional glitches, a reassuringly human one. These days, you see, These New Puritans’ records come on like menacing visitors from distant planets. And all must hail them.

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