Popular music and classical composition are very rarely married. The very image of the two locking hands evokes a sort of repulsion, like the current Miss Universe locking tongues with a chess grandmaster. For London-based These New Puritans however, it’s become a kind of formula that brought them unprecedented praise for 2010’s Hidden, a very percussive record uniting legato bassoon with pounding snare explosions.
For Field of Reeds, the group’s newest effort, they’ve switched focus again. Fully penned even before setting foot on the studio threshold, the album begins with two eerie piano chords underlaying a soundbite of a female voice surrounded by nature, keeping the listener guessing (as is the band’s want), building into a woodwind almost-jazz crescendo. Fragment Two possesses the same off-kilter rhythm that proved so successful on Hidden - a single hand on ivory keys, smooth but jagged, in a bizarre experimental time-signature.
The strangeness is very much a feature of the record, as Jack Barnett’s gruff vocal drones battle it out with jazz singer Elisa Rodrigues’ smooth, relaxed voice for centre-stage. In all honesty, whether or not you “get” the method with which Barnett uses his voice will likely define if this album will stick with you; there is zero faulting the remainder of the music, as shown on nine-minute masterpiece V, which could well be the soundtrack to a black and white science-fiction film. Everything from each individual piano hammer strike to organ drone sounds as though timed to the nearest nanosecond, with each breath left to hang in the air.
It’s far from easy listening. Dissonance is a staple, and Field of Reeds, much like its predecessor, does not shy away from this. Chords that slightly fall out with one another, and vocal drones underneath squealing string arrangements; Spiral plays with the concept, with stabs of trombone, a children’s choir - what’s more disconcerting than a children’s choir? - all over a bed of ebony and brass nails. An aural monster in the shadows clinging to a concrete wall. Sinister.
Organ Eternal begins with an ostinato that might have been plundered from Philip Glass, but like every song on this record it has a twist in its tale, and gradually becomes a string arrangement which sucks the tempo from it like an especially thirsty vampire. Nothing Else is as close to velvet as the album will go, while Dream kicks off with Rodrigues’ voice exploited to sound imperfect, in line with Barnett’s own humanist tones. The last track, also the title track, emanates foreboding; the vocal equivalent of pitch-black takes up the first minute or so, and returns in places to punctuate a bizarre set of woodwind and percussive trills.
Field of Reeds definitely does not aim to be easy on the ear, far from it, and in places it seems to seek to be the opposite. Influences lie scattered through the music, knowingly or otherwise, sometimes subtle and sometimes very obvious. It’s music crafted as art rather than to pander to the listener, which isn’t likely to win them any favours commercially, but they’re unlikely to care. One instrument on this album took four hours to set up. One instrument is one of the three lowest bass voices in the country. One instrument is a flaming hawk. Now that’s a band into their strange.
Field of Reeds by These New Puritans is out on June 10 via Infectious.