Don’t let the name throw you. On Hidden, These New Puritans show an enthusiasm for sound so intense it suggests a band in the fullest throes of gluttony or lust.
Check out “We Want War”, the first complete song on Hidden. It’s anchored by a huge and ornate percussion arrangement combining bass-heavy hip-hop beats, Japanese Taiko drums, and mysterious metallic scraping noises. The main harmonic element is a horn and woodwind ensemble weaving ambiguous harmonies in a neo-romantic, almost classical style. Also present are synthesized horns, squelchy dancefloor bass, strings, a choir, distorted voice samples, and probably six or seven other improbably awesome things harder to pick out of the mix. Over the course of seven and a half minutes, these sounds bleed in and out, interacting in obscure ways before leaving surreptitiously, sometimes to return at an unexpected point later on. It’s a stunning way to kick off an album; as a statement of intent, it’s incredibly ambitious, serving notice that no sound is off-limits.
It does not mislead. Over the course of this, These New Puritans’ second album, the band also incorporates jazzy piano parts, guitars of various descriptions (Big Black-style screeching, surf music tremelos, etc.), and, apparently, the handful of change from Pink Floyd’s “Money”. Lest anyone think the band is sustaining interest solely by changing instruments every eight or nine seconds, These New Puritans rearrange these disparate elements in novel situations with some regularity. After the deranged sprawl of “We Want War”, for example, the band presents a more succinct version, reviving the percussive foundation in the context of the three-minute, hip-hop-influenced “Three Thousand”. The record also manages to escape the biggest pitfall that tends to plague such studio-oriented projects; while These New Puritans may have sacrificed the immediacy of live performance, they keep the tempos brisk and lively, and the sonic adventurism keeps the listener’s attention.
So far, though, discussion of Hidden has been largely restricted to praise for arrangements and sonic detail, rather than actual songs. Melody emerges on songs like “White Chords” and “Hologram”, but for the most part, the vocals consist largely of vaguely paranoid British muttering. It’s sort of like if every Radiohead song was “Fitter Happier”. Sometimes it works—most notably on the manic, stuttering chorus on “Fire-Power”—but too often, the record finds itself facing the problem of what, exactly, to do with these elaborate sonic backdrops.
Now, of course, there’s an established tradition in rock and roll for affected, detached, weird, or otherwise unconventional vocalists. Indeed, given the iconoclastic nature of the band’s arrangements and production, it seems quite likely that they chose to dispense with anything as pedestrian as vocal hooks. In doing so, however, These New Puritans risk turning their album into a remote intellectual experiment: how many instruments can be crammed into a given song?
Understand, though, that this is a quibble, a point of minor concern rather than an outright condemnation. The vocals don’t actually detract from these tracks so much as they represent a wasted opportunity. Whatever its flaws, Hidden stands as a bracingly original statement from a band entirely too new to have this many good ideas. Come December, it may not make any “best of” lists, but it’s certainly one of the most fascinating albums we’re likely to see this year.
// Notes from the Road
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