These New Puritans kicked off their first record (the totally solid Beat Pyramid) with a disquieting, confrontational question: “What’s your favorite number, what does it mean?” From there, the song devolved into a discourse on numerology that split the difference between philosophy major and nutty hobo. It was an awesome song, but one that left me wondering if these guys were serious. Their sophomore effort, Hidden, answers that question with a resounding yes. Far from some kind of punky put-on, that wild-eyed track was just a taste of the band’s penchant for brain-bending otherness. On Hidden, These New Puritans have seized on that aspect of their first record and stretched it out into their own discrete musical universe, where Timbaland, Benjamin Britton, and Mark E. Smith are all the same person. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
This isn’t to say anybody saw this glorious mindfuck of a record coming, notwithstanding Beat Pyramid’s nuttier moments (a statement that will probably show up in some iteration in every single review). Two years ago, These New Puritans were just a bunch of precocious kids, aping The Fall and inviting musical descriptors like “angular,” “angular,” and “angular rock.” Flash forward to now, and suddenly they’ve turned out a lumbering Frankenstein of mid-20th-century art music and bone-crushing beats, in which post-punk is more garnish than main ingredient. While hints of Hidden’s insanity may have flitted around the periphery of their debut, this is a stunning reinvention.
If Hidden heralds the birth of a whole new These New Puritans, they couldn’t have picked a better midwife than producer Graham Sutton (whose work with Bark Psychosis similarly tended toward the creation of a unique, discrete musical universe). His fingerprints are all over the drama and atmosphere, if not the twitchy energy, that These New Puritans wring out of a juxtaposition of empty space and lush orchestration. Take “Orion,” for example, in which spartan, tooth-rattling percussion and synth squiggles give way to operatic grandeur with little-to-no warning. The result is strangely heart-wrenching, leaving the listener caught somewhere between wonder and dread.
That mixture of wonder and dread is the most consistent aspect of Hidden (with the possible exception of “Hologram,” which weirdly recalls Max Tundra in its wistful, off-kilter tonal clusters). Despite having limited themselves to a discrete, eclectic palate (including a brass and wind ensemble and oversized taiko drums), These New Puritans have turned out a remarkably diverse record. Even more remarkable is the fact that nearly every track succeeds, albeit to varying degrees. The closer These New Puritans get to Those Old Puritans of Beat Pyramid, the less compelling the record becomes (see “Attack Music”), and vice versa (see “We Want War”). This is a record that traffics in more atmosphere than hooks, so the less alien the sounds, the less there is to hold the listener’s attention.
This record is a tremendous achievement, but in the end, the grandeur of Hidden can be a little much to take in all at once. While it self-consciously presents itself as a unified piece of music (complete with an instrumental theme stated at the beginning and carried through the album), the intensity, weirdness, and dread it exudes makes listening to Hidden straight through a feat of endurance. Don’t let that stop you from diving right in, though. The glorious insanity of Hidden is something you won’t find anywhere else, and what could make a record a more worthwhile listen than that?