Since before their first album, 2008’s Beat Pyramid, was issued, These New Puritans have been entangled in a race to reach a distinct sound. And though Beat Pyramid was heavily indebted to Wire and the Fall, it stood in stark contrast to the more polished, poppy jaunts of post-punk fervor pumped out by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party. While those bands moved on to more electronic versions of themselves, These New Puritans frontman Jack Barnett learned musical notation so he could bring the stifling Gordian knots of sound floating in his mind life on his sophomore album, Hidden, an excellent achievement in sound that positions These New Puritans among the vanguard of British indie.
Hidden opens not with the familiar wiry snaps of de-riffed guitars that were so prevalent on Beat Pyramid but with a lamentation in brass and woodwinds (“Time Xone”) that sounds dropped in from the end of a film of manners. That kind of left-field, refined instrumentation is a theme for the rest of the album, but it’s also the only way to transition to what comes next: a winding seven-minute epic called “We Want War” that stomps like the Roman garrison crossing the tundra, with its bone-shattering percussion forming into a palpable menace alongside a chanting choir, a sword being unsheathed and a brown-note bass line. It’s a jarring track that is able to evoke feelings of dread, aggression, and tender sadness, sometimes all at once. It’s not the kind of track you’d expect from a band that started as the weird afterbirth of a theoretical Gang of Four-Wire baby, which helps in a way, since it allows the song to come completely out of nowhere. To an extent it is, but if you trace their evolution, These New Puritans had the tools to deliver a sprawling masterpiece like this all along.
Front-loading an album with a seven-and-a-half minute masterpiece like “We Want War” understandably makes the rest of Hidden sound like a comedown. While the remainder might not live up to the high standard of its second track, it’s on the remaining nine tracks that Barnett establishes a new sound for his band. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band that is trying this many things with a variety of sounds, both processed and natural. Swoops of orchestral lushness ramp up the moments of release on “Orion,” while Barnett’s manic street person rants on “Fire-Power” are matched in tenacity by its minimalist percussion and cerebellum-rupturing guitar. There are even two attempts at what could be considered ballads here; a gauche piano line is intertwined with bassoon on the shape-shifting “Hologram,” and “White Chords” could be the goth-kids’ new makeout joint, if its layered vocals, processed instrumentation and wrought emotional tension weren’t so eerie.
There’s already been a lot of talk of Hidden changing the face of British Music forever, since it was released way back in January over seas. I’m not sure I buy that -- just look at the lineup of the recent Brit awards -- but Hidden certainly makes a hell of a case for These New Puritans. They were easy to dismiss two years ago when they seemed like just a little bit weirder version of Bloc Party, but then they came out with Hidden, an album that presents These New Puritans not just as a band but also as sound sculptors, meticulously working in shards of noise to create a work of monolithic brunt force. Hidden won’t change British indie, but it should obliterate all expectations as far as These New Puritans are concerned.
Many critics lumped These New Puritans' debut, Beat Pyramid, in with the UK post-punk revival of the 2000s. But aside from jagged, angular guitar work and dark atmosphere, the comparisons with bands like Bloc Party and The Futureheads never quite felt apt. Beat Pyramid utilized washy electronic textures, complex percussion rhythms and melodic and lyrical repetition that was in a different league than contemporaries. With the release of Hidden, there should be no confusion about the fact that These New Puritans are separating themselves from those earlier comparisons. The band uses a wide variety of instruments and tools on Hidden, including Japanese drums, a large brass and woodwind section, and a children's choir. The results are less Joy Division and more Nico Muhly. The album, excitingly, retains the band's fondness of deep, dance-like beats that punched up Beat Pyramid. Hidden is less accessible, but it's ambitiousness and risk-taking make it equally compelling.