They walk onto a stage bathed in portentous crimson light and a slow soul draining strobe, to the sampled sounds of cars streaming by. Never have a band grown into their name more than These New Puritans, who have transformed themselves from skeletal post-punk agitators to near symphonic classicists in the space of three challenging yet spare albums.
It’s immediately evident that these small gig venues are no longer adequate for a band whose sound is almost too expansive for them. They necessitate grand acoustics and space to allow this sublime music to soar. Ideally they should be playing places like the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, or better still, in ruined Roman amphitheaters. That said, the venue does inspire intimacy and has a faded gravitas afforded by its royal blue and gold balconies, lending the place a requisite imperial edge.
Were front man Jack Barnett’s job not tricky enough (he plays bass and sings; a time-keeping killer) all the while he appears to be acting as a conductor for the others. His twin brother George plays astonishingly accomplished percussion, there’s no multi-tracking or Taiko drums here this evening but he manages to make an impressive racket nevertheless. Thomas Hein flits between sequencers, more drums and keyboards like a amphetamine-driven hummingbird. The brass has also been pared down to two players but this in no way detracts from their visceral impact. This music may be stripped back but it’s lean, mean and sternly commanding.
Their first song ‘Spiral’ sets the darkly sonorous tone of the evening, with the co-mingled, consonant free vocals of Jack and new member, Portuguese Fado singer Elisa Rodrigues. The horns lend it an air of Berlin era Bowie and Eno, or Brilliant Trees period David Sylvian. Not unfair comparisons for such European inflected dislocation.
Follow up ‘Fragment Two’ meanwhile sounds like a Michael Nyman score for an unseen and unsettling Derek Jarman film, verging on melodious in passages but remaining dissonant throughout. They may be using a traditional band line up but it sounds anything but, if anything when the voices merge it’s closer to a Benjamin Britten like chorus.
The martial ‘Three Thousand’ is bold and broad with a descending chord progression and background vocals courtesy of invisible ominous chanting monks. They’re such eloquent musicians that back in the day they’d have probably been in a prog band or an avant garde jazz outfit but hallelujah that they’re playing in a time where emaciated, meditative, post apocalyptic rock is acceptable.
More disconcerting chanting takes place during ‘Attack Music’, which sounds exactly as its title suggests. This is a band scoring the end of days. Sub continental classical progressions infer exoticism far removed from any Western canon. Elisa’s vocals at this point spread sinuously over the crowd and take point like a minaret over our heads. We’re almost expecting a call to prayer to begin ringing out.
‘We Want War’ is introduced as being “a thousand years old” and it is in this context. It sounds dirtier, like an up close land battle rather than one fought with the intellect. It’s positively anthropological, like a long dead Spartan tribe tearing shit up. Deep growling synths and arpeggios fly like scimitars through the air. And just when you think it has nowhere else to go it takes another turn and deepens in complexity.
A plaintive horn and cacophonous trumpet usher in ‘The Light In Your Eyes’ and it seems as if this level of intensity may be beginning to wear on the audience; most stand ramrod straight as if receiving a punishing. The Brixton Electric is peopled almost exclusively with angular faced boys in tight jumpers and overcoats, very much a furrowed brow Joy Division crowd. And it still isn’t warm in here, despite all the bodies. But even that somehow feels relatable to the music’s detachment and self-possession. It’s a serious business, confrontational but in a refined, contained way.
‘Organ Eternal’ is sumptuous yet grating, familiar yet unsettling, falling somewhere between Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ and Goblins soundtrack for the Italian horror classic Suspiria. This set has more than lived up to the album. It’s been an evening of intelligent, cerebral, genre defying music, as dark as it is refreshing. ‘Field Of Reeds’ as the encore is especially dense and remarkably beautiful. People aren’t sure about this band. Feeling that they’re obtuse, arch and non-inclusive, yet experienced live these sounds have fierceness and urgency that may well change their minds.
Here is a collection of musicians referencing the post war modernist tradition with admirable Orwellian clarity. Austere and atonal in aesthetic, tonight has bristled with challenge yet has remained humanistic, even romantic in a terror stricken way. This is no grandiloquent statement. Puritans are the real deal.
Words: Anna Wilson
Photo: Josh Halliday
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