Photography by Dan Wilton
Usually, when the music press resorts to the phrase “difficult second album,” it is code for disappointing. Rarely is “difficult” a complimentary description, but it seems appropriate for an album as genuinely challenging as Hidden, These New Puritans’ sophomore full-length. And rarely does “difficult” sound so triumphant.
Twins Jack and George Barnett, originally from the Thames Estuary, lead the band: Jack writes, arranges and sings, while George provides drums and art direction. It is completed by keyboardist Sophie Sleigh-Johnson and Thomas Hein, who plays bass as well as providing samples and backing vocals. Although this is the same line-up that delivered 2008’s Beat Pyramid, which was laden with guitars, drum samples and club-friendly grooves, the instrumentation on Hidden is a world away and the indie-guitar element has been almost completely shed. But the band doesn’t appreciate accusations of difficulty. “We hope something doesn’t have to be difficult to be new,” says Jack. “With ‘difficult’ music or experimental music, there’s too much self-aggrandising, with its own elite audience,” adds George. “This album is more accessible than anything These New Puritans have done before.”
Hidden is influenced as much by Jamaican dancehall as it is by minimalist classical composition, and is even available to buy packaged with a complete book of its musical notation. “Originally the album was going to be called Attack Music,” George says, “but only half of the songs fit that title.” Nevertheless, debut single “We Want War,” almost eight minutes long and with seemingly no verse or chorus, certainly sounds like a battle cry. The dark, ominous bass line is overlaid with harsh tribal marching beats, before taking a dramatic turn into a series of choral and orchestral interludes. Menacing vocal rumbles chant for war, while lyrical references to “secret recordings made in the marsh” suggest a clandestine production of battlefield songs.
The album begins with a tender brass and woodwind overture that is echoed and referenced throughout, creating a leitmotif that alludes to the traditions of opera. The classical instrumentation is spliced with Steve Reich-esque handclap rhythms on “Orion” or the noises of clanking medieval chains and swords being unsheathed on “Three Thousand.” Later, the New London Children’s Choir harmonises over beats that sound like they were stolen from the sequencers of seminal hip-hop producers J Dilla and Madlib. (Producer Dave Cooley, who handled the mixing duties on much of Dilla’s work, also mixed Hidden.)
Jack says that he is currently “writing something based on Urashima Taro,” an eighth-century Japanese folk tale that contains the first known example of time travel. It is a fitting reference for a band that draws upon instruments and sounds from the distant past to the present day, from traditional six-foot-long Japanese o-daiko drums to digitally sequenced synthetic loops. Hidden is a work of cryptic fantasy, a composition that sees the band shed its post-punk wings and provide a soundtrack that would suit the strange fictional worlds of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Yet when asked about the concept for the album, Jack shrugs off the idea and says that it was simply “a hunch I had about a particular type of music.” Hidden, indeed. §