It’s a ceaselessly intriguing creative trajectory to which peripheral London-based avant-pop prodigies These New Puritans have stuck over their slowly, yet surely expanding histories: from the indie-gilded off-kilt laconism of début LP Beat Pyramid to genuinely groundbreaking sophomore Hidden, during which a macabre variation on baroque renovation was mediated by a miscellaneous array of musical diversity ranging from watermelons to six ft tall Japanese drums, abnormality has frequently been the norm. And the same can certainly be said of their third full-length, Field of Reeds, which is perhaps aptly an only slight cross-pollination of the two efforts aforesaid.
V (Island Song) marries neo-classical pianistic tonking to Jack Barnett’s terse and breathy vocal delivery although akin to islet hopping, with its innards splayed out across nine innovatory minutes, stylistic erraticism proves crucial. “And I am the reason/ Not the questions/ Not the answers” he exhales pained and repetitively atop torrid maelstroms of explosive rhythmic hit and tapering synthetic commotion though there is no rhyme nor reason; inquisition nor riposte. There is instead a bewildering simultaneity of everything and nothing all at once – an intricate inertia composed of cenobitic incantation; disorienting instrumentation of a primarily rhythmic persuasion; and insistent cymbals starkly punctuated with brusque silences. Though more astonishing still is the moment at which some seven and a half minutes in, the whole thing breaks down into a beguiling kind of Pink Floydian soft-rock lull. Think The Great Gig In The Sky relocated to the inscrutably magnetic Bermuda Triangle, and you’re a little of the way there.
And although V (Island Song) may be their most expansive, and with it audacious composition this time around (the incontrovertible centrepiece, it falls about the midpoint of the LP and spans just shy of ten all told) it’s far from an outlier as it instead sets the tone for what is a wilfully challenging listen. Before it, The Light In Your Name dextrously employs sparsity and an unprecedented brightness to illuminate Barnett’s best Thom Yorke impression as the pomp and bombast closeted deep at the core of Hidden powers These New Puritans through a turbulent six whilst in its wake, the sepulchral trill of Spiral. It’s down in these murky depths where we most apparently come upon the newly assumed Elisa Rodrigues – a 26-year-old Iberian vocalist specialising in the Fado genre. Ostensibly originating back to a Lisbon of the early 19th century, although the style’s reliance on instruments of an exclusively acoustic timbre may differ from her newfound cohorts’ penchant for the incorporation of anything in any way resonant, its predilection for woeful themes ensures Rodrigues makes for an if unlikely, then also seamless fit. Her otherworldly gurgle here contorted to mimic that of Björk in all its emblematic beauty, her vocal contribution is as though the whispered ripples of subaqueous anemones further buoyed by a gently demonic children’s choir belonging to the great below.
Thus whereas others may opt to rest on their laurels having contrived a recording of such boundless ingenuity as was Hidden, the brothers Barnett – together with longstanding accomplice Thomas Hein and Rodrigues – here hurl themselves into an uncharted end which sounds deeper still.
Field of Reeds is, therefore, a record which is at once aesthetic and from a compositional angle, Jack has only matured as a masterminding wunderkind. Though the differentiation between now and then stems in part from his synergic collaborating with fellow symphonists: Hans Ek, who has previously worked alongside the likes of Robyn and Ane Brun, as well as providing the appositely chilling soundtrack to Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In lines up alongside the likes of Phillip Sheppard (whose previous allies indeed include James Lavelle, Jarvis Cocker, Scott Walker and so on) and polymathic Dutch contemporary classical pioneer Michel van der Aa, all of whom contribute scripted bits and pieces as and when. But threading the whole thing together is Andre de Ridder: it was he who not only congregated, but so too conducted the vast ensemble of session musicians that allowed for Field of Reeds to translate from mere theory to palpable practice. It was again he who helped render the live, fully orchestral representation of Hidden and the cooperative phrasing of those most epicentral pieces aforementioned proves incontrovertibly consummate as we might anticipate.
It’s when These New Puritans diverge from these elaborate arrangements and are left to their multifarious devices, however, that results begin to vary rather wildly: Nothing Else, the record’s next lengthiest piece, suffers from a convoluted instrumental narrative lacking in both focus and refinement while the purposefully oneiric Dream proves so sparse so as to unpleasantly sedate. Opener This Guy’s In Love With You meanwhile, featuring inessential orchestral flutters, sounds redolent of a fragmented segment of the London Sinfonietta tuning up ahead of a Steve Reich recital although elsewhere, triumphs are there for the taking. Organ Eternal, equal parts Aphex obduracy and Clark vibrancy with both elements intermingled with the unrelenting insistency of The Field, bears witness to a regression to a perhaps more simplistic MO which seems to somehow resemble a remarkable progression. A whiff of a more organic stylisation lingers, gradually penetrating to present an interdisciplinary listen rewarding as Hendrik Weber’s The Bell Laboratory combo Elements Of Light, whilst otherwise, the syncopated tinkering intrinsic to Fragment Two has Barnett’s literary fancies commixed with what sounds a collagist’s copying and pasting of bootlegged refrains captured at the Barbican Centre replete with late ’80s saxophone overlay. Repositioned within a contemporary context, it’s a perplexing mélange though that’s not to say that it’s one which can be anything but marvelled at.
Thus although Field of Reeds may sprout forth from the same unearthly patch as Hidden, it perhaps lacks that same cohesion and the absolute conviction brought with it. But in tending to other stylistic inspirations, These New Puritans adeptly steer clear of stagnation to conjure a recording which is at once exacting, if eventually edifying.
Released: June 10th, 2013 [Infectious Music]