For the critic, Beat Pyramid is a disconcerting album. It’s not that its sonic landscapes are radically outlandish or dauntingly expansive, though they certainly are idiosyncratic; no, it’s Jack Barnett’s speckled, hyper-intellectual lyrical palette that makes it intimidating. With references ranging from numerology to pre-Socratic philosophy to social surveillance, often digressing widely within a single song, it’s hard not to look for some connecting strand of reasoning, some thematic skewer fixing together the record’s apparent incongruities. Circularity, repetition, numerology, shape: all these come and go, and the initial impression is one of enigma and perplexity.
Maybe it’s paranoia, but you feel as though These New Puritans know the problem they pose. Unintentional or otherwise, “Swords of Truth”‘s (assumedly faux-)pretentious repartee, “this music’s symbolic/This music is weightless”, so perfectly describes the critical predicament that it’s almost like a goading challenge. “You’ll be slashing at the air, describing nothing” deadpans Barnett, and so it seems, trying to collect Beat Pyramid‘s myriad elements into something coherent, trying to pin down and put into words its overall philosophy, should be there be anything so grand at work here.
But regardless of any lofty thematic ambitions (and certainly interviews with the band have been steeped in pretension), the true current of continuity running through Beat Pyramid is musical, rather than lyrical, and for all the intrigue of the latter sphere, it is the former, too, that makes the record such a good one. A little less abrasive, a little less peculiar, and These New Puritans might have suffered the misfortune of the largely media-constructed new-rave ‘scene’. And it’s true, there are parallels in the chorus of opener and single “Numerology aka. Numbers” and those of Mercury Music Award winners Klaxons, but the comparison holds weight only fleetingly.
For while the latter ensemble, for all their posturing about supposedly broken ground, are unashamedly pop, These New Puritans expand their largely guitar-driven songs with spacey, hip-hop derived breaks and appear also to appreciate the value of minimalism. “Numerology”‘s verse, for instance, limits itself to faltering staccato stabs of guitar, orchestrated by George Barnett’s gloriously commandeering stop-start drum beat and accompanied by repetitions of his twin brother’s drolly insistent inquisition, “What’s your favourite number?/What does it mean?” “Infinity Ytinifni”, meanwhile, buries J. Barnett’s persistent chant of “Infinity’s not as fast as me” in swells of miasmic noise, expanding exponentionally, before washing themselves away and leaving his Southend-stamped barks standing alone, unrelenting.
In fact, insistence is something These New Puritans seem intent on. It stems naturally, in fact, from another characteristic of Beat Pyramid, one that is at odds with its evidently educated origins. For all the talk of Heraclites, for all “Numerology”‘s matter-of-fact accounts of it titular concept (“Number 1 is the individual/Number 2, duality”), the album retains an undeniably youthful sense of vigour — though not playful, really, but ballsy. This doesn’t always pay dividends. The smug, repeated declarations of “We were right” that make up the brattish chorus of “C. 16±” is the closest Beat Pyramid comes to grating, but elsewhere, such as on “En Papier”‘s jubilant gang-chant chorus line, it invests a degree of personality into a record that could otherwise become bogged down by its own pretension.
In the end it’s an appealing and successful, if contradictory, combination, this mesh of intellect and youthful attitude, and it highlights perhaps Beat Pyramid‘s greatest strength: its variety. In the best possible sense, it’s very much an album that could only be a debut; full of ideas, yet also indebted to influence; full of pretension, yet fitfully visceral. But it’s not so much the product of a band fumbling for their sound, but precociously finding it already. So while Barnett’s voice frequently rings a Mark E. Smith-branded bell and “Costume” could easily be Animal Collective via hazy coastal Southend, taken as a whole These New Puritans in truth don’t really sound like anyone else. Beat Pyramid is an idiosyncratic, swaggering, and intellectual album, but more importantly for the listener, a damn exciting and original one too.