These New Puritans - Hidden

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2010-01-18

It was obvious to anyone listening to These New Puritans' first album Beat Pyramid back in 2008 that here was one UK band possessed of a quality lacking from so many of its peers - ambition. And not the ambition to frolic with supermodels under clouds of crack smoke, but the ambition to push their musical horizons and make sounds which took the listener by surprise. There second album sees them slip loose of the shackles of guitar-bass-drums indie rock, instead employing brass, piano, choir and a series of vicious beats in an effort to create startling new noises.

Nowhere does this work better than on first single 'We Want War'. The mix of nerve-end electronica, sorrowful brass and choral gymnastics is unlike anything heard outside of a Bjork record. Over the course of seven minutes it becomes increasingly claustrophobic, hellish and panicked-sounding as the individual sounds shed their consistency and bleed viscously into each other.

What's compelling about the music TNP are now making is that it feels embued with a sense of evil and, even more grippingly, a sense of abjection, something they currently share only with avant-noise makers HEALTH and post punk revival survivors Liars. This fear and loathing was pungently evident in the output of several bands and artists throughout the 70s and 80: from the holy glam-sleaze trinity of Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, through Can, Nico, The Fall, Joy Division, PiL, The Smiths and Pixies. Each made music and wrote songs which explored the Death Drive, which grappled with attraction/repulsion to sex and the self-immolation it offered. But following a peak of self-loathing with Nirvana and Richey-era Manic Street Preachers, this tension and mess seemed to drain out of guitar music, quickly finding a home in the new trip hop sounds forged by Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack.

So it's no surprise that much of Hidden seems to owe a debt to the hyper-dense trip hop of Tricky and Mezzanine-era Massive Attack. But this is trip hop as played by a coven of hallucinating witches. 'Three Thousand' takes the brimstone-breathing menace of Tricky's most forbidding work, 1998's Angels with Dirty Faces, and spirits it away from the urban hellscapes he describes, away to a rural site of pagan rituals and death rites. Over this compacted, crippled waltz, singer Jack Barnett, like Massive Attack's 3D, delivers a detached, somnambulist rap, as though at once oblivious to and possessed by the music's horror.

Elsewhere there are moments of quiet. Opening track 'Time Xone' is a lament for brass and woodwind, its twisting melody repeatedly edging towards hopefulness before tumbling back into despair. 'Hologram' is a foray into jazz, its chiming piano and harpsichord framing a story of imposed isolation. 'White Chords' sounds like a description of a schizophrenic episode mumbled over a collapsing, minimalist breakbeat. It taps into the spirit of both PiL's Flowers of Romance and Bowie's most out there art statements. Closing track '5' is an enchanting evocation of Steve Reich's work, with interlocking, dancing xylophone melodies rubbing against quarrelsome brass and woodwind. Towards the end, utterly unexpectedly, a choir erupts into a lilting, ghostly chorus. To hear this come from an indie band in 2010 is at once startling and immensely heartening. Perhaps finally we can consign years of will-this-do, spineless kerfuffling to the bargain bin of history?

But the album really hinges on its loud statements. TNP have quite reasonably chosen drums as their weapon of choice. 'Drums Count-Where Corals Lie' and 'Attack Music' open with monumental spasms of percussion and keep almost every other element subservient to the beat. But these songs are less interesting than their quieter brethren since they contain precious little light or shade; TNP's ambition in this instance apparently being to bludgeon you over the head and into submission. The drums remain martial, stilted and aggressive, whether it's the steadily advancing plod of 'Attack Music' or the military tattoo of MIA-inspired 'Fire Power'. For an album which makes such relentless use of drums, it's slightly odd that TNP's have apparently not been tempted at all to explore rhythm's potential to sway the body, to coerce it to dance. You know, free your ass and your mind will follow?

This is drum music robbed of any sexuality, designed to regiment and oppress people. It's music for marching, which makes sense when so many of the songs ruminate on war, using conflict and battle as extended metaphor, although it remains unclear what TNP are getting at here. "It was September/ this is attack music," an eerie choir of seriously hacked off sounding children chant on 'Attack Music". It could be a comment of September 11 but one suspects (and hopes) not.

Throughout the album, Barnett's voice mostly appears as a paralysed whisper, implying the album's theme may be one of psychological attack on an individual. When he does raise his voice, Barnett sounds feeble against his band's unstinting barrage, although this might not be intentional. In fact, his somewhat weedy singing might be a crucial factor in this album's message (and it must surely be banging on about something?) remaining elusive. Unfortunately, despite some truly superlative, transcendent moments, Hidden's unceasing sturm und drang, it's insistence of pounding at your skull without making it clear what it so desperately wants you attention for, means that ultimately it becomes a slightly frustrating listen.

Richard Morris

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