Sunday, 28 July 2013

Album Review: These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds

You asked if the islands
would float away,
if the stars run through me
like a river, like the air:
I said "yes".

I keep returning to the idea of a small island mentality. Forgive me; I didn't wish to begin another review with the same, half-formed lecture. There's certainly more to being British than this identity, but it's one that leans into offering an interpretation to the handful of themes presented on this new album by These New Puritans, Field Of Reeds. I don't wish to push this idea into the spotlight for very long, especially as it's not one I necessarily take; indeed the album seems to be one guided much more closely by expression than rationality or sensibility; lyrics are presented often as statements rather than rhymes, and their true meanings, if any, may be completely hidden (to borrow the title of the group's 2010 record) to the outside spectator. However, consider this passage from "Spiral", the album's fifth and mathematically central track:

Watch the fireworks from the beach
I've got meteors falling to earth

Presumably, it's a nighttime scene. The first line is picturesque, reminiscent of a film or novel, probably of main songwriter Jack Barnett's hometown of Southend-on-Sea. The "fireworks" of the first line are overtaken by "meteors" in the second, Barnett's own brilliant, passionate lights introducing chaos to the controlled, tranquil darkness.

On Field Of Reeds Jack Barnett is Cnut, his - I'll say it - magical approach to making music is the equivalent of waiting in front of approaching tides and commanding natural phenomena as if they were his own. Far from an omnipotent magus, as the record unfolds it feels as if the already dour, monotonous Barnett actually loses confidence in his abilities, as if in the knowledge that though no matter what complexities civilizations of the land develop eventually fiery rocks from space will fall from the sky, and waves of endless seawater will wash them all away, creating fertile conditions for wetland plants. It's not difficult to chart this idea across These New Puritans' musical evolution. The already alluded-to Hidden is a complete contrast in style, production and delivery, yet despite a redundant cliché to note at this late stage that album contained seeds of what this one grew into, even if those seeds were incubated a little differently than expected. No one could accuse These New Puritans of sounding like The Fall any more, for example; neither Aphex Twin or The Wu-Tang Clan. It would be a disservice to compare them to any musical figures cited as influences. Not that it's assured that the trio have stepped onto entirely uncharted musical territory, but it's no stretch to say that Field Of Reeds is unlike anything in British independent rock in 2013. Let's not even entertain the comparison.

Instead, now that I've properly managed to wedge my foot in the door of this review I'm going to detail and evaluate Field Of Reeds, predictably, chronologically. It seems the sensible option, being that the album is split into three sections of three tracks each, plus that means I can write whilst listening to it in order (but that's neither here nor there). There is a danger in this approach to spoil the enjoyment of a first listen, so if you haven't done so yet I'd strongly suggest you scroll down to the Soundcloud player before reading any further.

The first sound on the record is a piano, maybe even the magnetic resonator piano, a new instrument that colours much of Field Of Reeds. It proves to be a smart choice for Barnett, who has only recently learned to read sheet music, as on this first track he fumbles minor key variations around two chords without the need for indulgent embellishments. Plus the instrument's tone, and even its name suggest something unusual and metallic working beneath its familiar timbre. However the main focus of this opener is the apparent "field recording" of a singing woman, a loose a capella of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned "This Guy's In Love With You". The vocal, heavy with reverb, is difficult to make out, and soon a lone trumpet replaces Barnett's piano, joined by a swelling of strings in its final third. A particularly striking element here, and indeed on many points of the album, is the guttural, ominous bass tones, presently only hinted but used to much more forceful effect later on.

Next is the single "Fragment Two", given the hindsight of the full album the only "fragment" that could be so. Even then it's something of a peculiarity; the somewhat upbeat, neat piano phrase quickly offset by the introduction of Barnet's monotone, throaty vocal. This track is one of maybe only three (by my count) that feature any form of regular drumming, all of which occur in the first half of the record, easing the listener up for the freer, melody-driven tracks that function as the majority. It's worth mentioning the quality of the production especially in relation to drum sounds. It's hard to tell whether these drums, played elegantly by Barnett's brother George, are acoustic or electronic; on "Fragment Two" and later "V (Island Song)" they have a satisfying, crisp sound in the treble register; a complete departure from the warlike snares, toms and Japanese taiko on the percussion-heavy Hidden that suggest, but aren't necessarily indebted to, the presence of outside co-producer Graham Sutton (of Bark Psychosis). Here too, another collaborator is introduced, namely Portuguese fado singer Elisa Rodrigues, who contributes vocals to much of the album. On "Fragment Two" she is relegated to a backing harmony during the final minute. It is a relief, however, to hear Barnett's own multitracked vocals swooping over his own funereal arrangement of piano, horns, organ and breaking glass; especially given that they're symbolic of a retraction of a previous statement that he was going to give up singing all together. It would have been hazardous to Field Of Reeds if he had done; even if his voice is technically unremarkable it has such an unusual, seductive timbre that it would be difficult to imagine the album without it.

Closing the album's first movement is "The Light In Your Name", the longest track so far. It's lyrics are more narrative than elsewhere on the album; the open-ended lines, such as "Your clothes without you in them", combine with low, sustained strings and piano notes to create a palpable sense of threat, that becomes more and more unbearable as shards of electronics interfere spontaneously and temporarily. Barnett's voice also intensifies, the rasp of his throat struggling above his limited range on the refrain for which the soft, effortless Rodrigues serves as a brilliant foil. George's drums eventually burst forth and would consume the piece whole if not for the singers' willingness to combat them with a rare, confident harmonised crescendo of their own. This being the conclusion to only the first movement (and first side of vinyl), and less than fifteen minutes into the album, serves as a powerful initiation. Similarly the central cluster of tracks provide the album with a brilliant, intricate core.

The second movement begins as unassuming (yet by this stage reassuring) as the first; Jack Barnett toying with a rising and falling piano phrase with choral backing. It only takes a minute or so for his left and right hands to loosen and start wondering in different directions. He is quickly joined by organ and drums, initiating the brilliant momentum that bodies "V (Island Song)". Little else is needed to make the track's nine minutes some of the most captivating on Field Of Reeds, save for the delightfully somber strings which dampen the second half of the piece like rain, turning it into a freer, if rhythmically rigid performance. Descriptions don't really do "V (Island Song)" justice: it feels too self-contained for that. Jack Barnett's piano phrase, and brother George's drums perpetuate whole worlds unto themselves.

"Spiral" follows. Its cataclysmic theme begins before Barnett's lyrical address; steady, descending brass and unfathomable, horrifyingly deep choral voices - the lowest provided by Adrian Peacock, owner of the deepest voice in Britain - immediately contrast all else which preceded it. These voices sound barely human at all, and call into memory Shadow Of The Colossus, an old videogame where the only inhabitants of a forgotten world are impossibly large black monsters that writhe in terrible pain when attacked by the player. Elisa Rodrigues leads a choir of children amidst Barnett's Cnutian chaos; bound together by song as if on scorched earth. All of this should sound ridiculous, yet contains the right amount of control for it to match Barnett's intentions. A woodwind section that brings the track to a close, unaccompanied by any of the shattering instrumentation that set it up, only reinforces this point.

Field Of Reeds' intensity, creative scope, and above all abundant quality have been assured several times over before "Organ Eternal". The record's potential to impose, often from the unusual quiet and sinister uses of grandiose instruments, is replicated on the titular introductory organ; its fledgling part akin to classical minimalism. Overall this is a calmer and less involving piece, settling instead on being "merely" gorgeous. It's not easy to dislike it, especially when more masterfully arranged strings are brought in. There isn't a spot on Field Of Reeds that isn't musically rich or uncaptivating.

If the tryptich structure of the record would have you believe that the third suite represents the arrival of the conclusion, and a steady rolling off of quality; the reality is more gratifying. "Nothing Else" is one of the album's longest pieces, reminiscent of "The Light In Your Name" with Barnett and Rodrigues's lead vocal overlaps replicating the exchanges of reality and fantasies of dreams. However the arrangement of strings and woodwind, assisted by Hans Ek, stays anchored to the ground; its organic shape giving it an almost cerebral quality that's well suited to the subject. It precedes "Dream", a relatively short and straightforward interlude, evolving the lyrical themes of its predecessor. These tracks are certainly calmer and more "sensible" than anything after "This Guy's In Love With You". This change of mood eases Field Of Reeds into its farewell, the incendiary title track.

"Field Of Reeds" most closely resembles "Spiral", with the choir of children replaced with one of men; Peacock's volcanic depths clearly distinguishable among them. Maybe not since Björk's Medulla has there been such a reminder of the incredible potency of stark human voices. Emotion is only heightened when Barnett's own voice, raw and unrefined as it is, whittles off a disparaging three-note ditty barely formed before leaving his mouth, closing the album in the same way as is started. For These New Puritans, "Field Of Reeds" is unparalleled in sheer affectation; as drained of hope and light as Joaquin Phoenix's face at the end of last year's The Master. If a tear doesn't roll down your cheek you're much hardier than me. It's a long ending, a temporal analogy of loss; of nature, of communication, of spirituality, of humanity itself. These New Puritans and their collaborators convey this despair so beautifully that it flexes itself back around to an emotionally complex lift; the territory of post rock and goth rock that only very lightly colour the album. A wonderful, monolithic album, you really have to find your own way through it. It will be here forever.

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