From neo post-punk upstarts to full-blown avant garde rockers, These New Puritans have come a long way in three albums' time.
When Beat Pyramid came out way back in 2008, its young authors were clear students of the neo post-punk indie school, combining the arty, scruffy jaggedness of Wire and the Fall with the jittery energy of the Arctic Monkeys. What distinguished These New Puritans from others indebted to the same reference points was that their music felt more inspired by the sensibilities espoused by the original post-punk vanguard (drawing influence from non-rock sources and shedding as many conventions of rock tradition as possible) than yet another exercise filtering Cure or Gang of Four motifs through indie rock mechanisms. The nurturing of this experimentally-minded approach has served the band in good stead -- having developed drastically with their second album Hidden (where among other evolutionary strides, frontman Jack Barnett taught himself how to write musical notation in order to better realize the arrangements he heard in his head), the Puritans have since blossomed into full on avant art-rockers, in the process creating a daring, difficult third album that -- depending on who you talk to -- may be the delivery of the creative promise the group has long hinted at.
Speaking of art rock, These New Puritans evidence some serious prog damage on their latest LP. This makes a degree of sense if one is aware that the band’s spiritual ancestors were commonly lapsed or closet prog heads invigorated by punk’s Year Zero attitude. Where once on Beat Pyramid compositions were at times maddeningly short (under one-minute runtimes were common), Field of Reeds is vaguely structured as three movements, and its individual components can run to “Stairway to Heaven” lengths. The influence of the fiddly-diddly art school ‘70s isn’t limited to structure, as the Krautrock-y synth part that underpins “Organ Eternal” and the overtly proggy keyboard figure that interjects in the middle of the title cut illustrate. Avant garde and modern composition sensibilities are also reflected, such as with how percussion is used more for garnish than time-keeping, instead letting rumbling low tones (sometimes instrumentation, other times courtesy of guest vocalist Adrian Peacock’s cavernous bass voice) assume the rhythmic function in most instances. The end product is disembodied and vaguely ominous music, its power derived more from the subconscious sensations it suggesss rather than the force it is applied with.
Field of Reeds introduces itself quite commendably with the first of its three segments, and it is in that section where the album makes its most convincing case for its artistic success. Opener “This Guy’s in Love With You” introduces listeners to new member Elisa Rodrigues, whose ghostly, effects-treated voice lures them deeper and deeper into the album’s sepulchral soundscapes. That song gives way to “Fragment Two”, the closest thing to a potential “hit” on the record. Kept to a comparatively reserved four and a half minutes, it’s characterized by weighty piano keys that lock in with a steady, persistent kick drum pulse that work in tandem with Barnett’s pained mewling (shades of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) to build up anticipation that, ingeniously, slowly dissipates by song’s end instead of resolving via a conventional form of release.
It is partway through the third track “The Light in Your Name” where the LP hits its first snag, for when Jack’s twin brother George finally shows up to lay down an otherwise thrilling breakbeat, it is a jarring interjection that ill suits the carefully measured vibe that has been maintained until that point. It turns out making disparate sections link together is still an area where These New Puritans can find room for improvement. Try as they might on the title track and the aforementioned “The Light in Your Name” to shift on a dime like the prog heroes of ancient yore, the Puritans can’t quite pull it off, for they have crafted a record whose natural inclination is to glide along, and any sort of swift direction change becomes a distraction.
At its heart, Field of Reeds is really a mood record, and the way it is crafted limits its horizon and ultimately its ability to be truly visionary. Anything that suits the suggestive atmospherics on display -- the range of voices, the electronics, the mournful sax that is the centerpiece of ”Nothing Else” -- fits in thematically, no matter how un-rockist. Yet letting George Barnett pick up his drumsticks and show off his chops, or playing notes that are closer to conventional melodies than aural texture? In the realm that the group summons up for Field of Reeds, these actions threaten to break a very mesmerizing spell.
Opinion on whether Field of Reeds is a brave leap forward or a frustrating trip up the groups’ collective backside has been split, a dilemma concisely summed up by the NME headline “Field of Reeds: Amazing or Shit?” It’s true that the record that can be hard to wrap one’s head around with only a few plays. Even after listening to it several times and letting its amorphous textures wash over me repeatedly, I find myself continually facilitating between entranced esteem and the need to niggle over the ways in which the album doesn’t quite manage to hit the mark. For good or ill, Field of Reeds is a record that continues to hint at promise for a still-young band -- no, it is not an outright masterpiece, but there’s enough to commend it that suggests that These New Puritans might not be far off.