March 5, 2010

Music Review: These New Puritans – Hidden

If you think back to just over a decade ago, despite the common claim of disbelief in religious or superstitious apocalypse, there was a palpable sense of dread over the coming of the new millennium. The media called it pre-millennial tension, and in addition to hysteria over a mostly-fabricated Millennium Bug due to break all known computer systems, there was also a glut of tense, no-future art – Tricky, Mike Leigh’s Naked and Ministry to name just a few. And when Y2K finally rolled around the sun didn’t explode, God didn’t appear with a plague of locusts and artists chilled out considerably, reverting to happier or at least more directly personal art. Well, not These New Puritans who - like Thom Yorke - are saddled with the burden of Post-Millennial tension. The only complication for this particular band is that they aren't entirely sure which Millennium they are feeling tense about.

Towards the end of 2009 young British post-punk band These New Puritans, often abbreviated to TNPS, put out a sensual, eye-catching video for their digital single "We Want War", directed by Australian film-maker Daniel Askill. The song that accompanied the video is a 7 minute long orchestral song that opens with expansive taiko drums, pitch-shifted speech and horns; the resulting sound is simultaneously like something from the near future and also positively medieval. The video garnered them a lot of attention and Hidden – their sophomore album - has been hotly anticipated ever since.

TNPS are a ragtag four-piece hailing from Southend-On-Sea, a decaying seaside town not far along the Thames from London. Echoing the experimentation of artists such as Björk and Scott Walker, they blend Foley samples, taiko drums, oboes and a children’s choir into their unique brand of Art rock. The end result is a fascinating collection of brooding, percussive and melodic songs - danceable and cerebral. The album manages to blend the angular guitar stylings of Liars and Gang of Four with the urban dance of MIA and the vocal experimentation of the aforementioned Icelandic Diva. Hidden has a cinematic, militaristic feel but it doesn’t summon images of modern warfare and conflict. With its rattling chains, drum-heavy sound, choirs and clashing swords it evokes something much more medieval and primitive.

The end result is a post-apocalyptic dystopia worthy of Russell Hoban (author of Riddley Walker, and according to front man Jack Barnett an influence on the album, along with British wartime composer Benjamin Britten). The most delicate track, "Hologram" begins as a moment of Vespertine-esque beauty with the lyrics “Shut the door, shut the door; Because I’m staying here; The world might disappear under blankets of snow”. It could be a lover talking to his other or a missive from the bed of a depressive’s bunker in a world destroyed by war and climate change. The following track, "Attack Music" breaks in with the sounds of epic battle drums, clashing swords, breaking glass and sinister oboes. Another track, "White Chords" appears to be at least in a small way a nod to Thom Yorke’s Black Swan.

Self-conscious, and at times pretentious, the album is a heavily compelling and successful elaboration on their debut release, Beat Pyramid. In a music scene that is overwhelmingly re-discovering the lo-fi, fey aesthetic of bands such as the Modern Lovers and ironic revivals of eighties synth-pop that the authors aren’t old enough to remember, the cinematic, expansive, unabashedly literate sound of Hidden is a welcome break from the norm. Without doubt one of the most ambitious, obtuse and exhilarating albums of the year.

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