In terms of the ability to use music to stimulate the imagination, These New Puritans are among the most underrated groups.
If you were around for the beginning of These New Puritans, and managed to predict the transformations the band would undergo since their debut album, Beat Pyramid, congratulations: you are a Precog. For the rest of us, though, the career trajectory is perplexing enough that anyone who listened to Beat Pyramid back-to-back with their newest album, Inside the Rose, would have a bear of a time finding the through line between the two. Having started as a much more straightforward British art rock band – with proper guitar noise and thick accents and everything – with Beat Pyramid, the band sounded like the spiritual cousin of other artsy-punk bands of the era, like Foals and Art Brut, but if those bands were obsessed with hip-hop and Aphex Twin. Two years later, though, they’d already begun to mutate in substantial ways with the dark and brooding Hidden, as frontman Jack Barnett began learning how to actually write music, incorporating madcap elements like foley work, neoclassical elements and a 13-piece brass/woodwind ensemble.
Three years after Hidden, the scope of These New Puritans became clear with 2013’s Field of Reeds, where the band embraced the neoclassical elements they found a home for wholeheartedly. They took huge risks, bringing thirty-plus musicians, singers, and – what the hell – an honest-to-god hawk aboard to execute a monolith of sound and fury that, somehow, unbelievably, was amazing. It was a hard act to follow, which likely contributed to the six year gap between Reeds and this year’s beautiful – but frustrating – return, Inside the Rose.
If you’ve been on their ride before, Inside isn’t going to surprise you any more than any of their previous albums have, but only because you’ve been trained to expect truly anything from a band whose own website refers to them as “an English experimental music group whose music is not easily categorized.” Now just a two-piece of Jack and his twin brother George, they make something that feels closer to the soundtrack of a fantasy epic than anything. It’s leaner than Reeds was, owing to its startling lack of hawks or choirs, but its toy box is full of familiar, but still effective, tricks: skittering drum machine beats and operatic background singing, bells and horns, even good ol’ fashioned lyrical repetitions (see: “Where the Trees Are on Fire”), but they sure do know how to make it sound great. Jack’s voice, which has morphed into something closer to instrument than lyrical delivery system over time, anchors everything, driving the mood of each piece.
In terms of the ability to use music to stimulate the imagination, These New Puritans are among the most underrated groups, like an alternate-universe Muse with the raw talent to back up their excess. Inside begs of you repeated listens, both in headphones and played loudly on speakers, confident in the fact that it’s still huge. The sinister swirl of strings and bells that announces opener “Infinity Vibraphones,” paired with Jack’s thoroughly English baritone, sets the tone flawlessly. “An addiction to the impossible/ Let’s go back to the underworld,” he sings cryptically, as the tension that has been building breaks with the drumbeat’s entrance. Elsewhere, you might find yourself lost in the dreamy synthtones of the lurching “Anti-Gravity,” or the grimy beats of “A-R-P.” Each song feels like it has at least one piece of every song designed to ensnare you.
However, Inside – for all its beauty – feels like it doesn’t have the strength to be the main feature, only the music playing in the background while the real action is happening. There’s some genuinely great work here – like “A-R-P”’s majestic build, the industrial “Beyond Black Suns,” or the soft, organ-heavy shoals of “Six,” as well as the over-the-top, driving “Into the Fire, complete with “The Beautiful People”-esque beats and twinkling piano – but it struggles with memorability, serving as a collection of atmospheres, rather than songs. At least one song – “Inside the Rose” – is both fantastic (for its sloppy, evocative beats and Aphex Twin-like squiggling noises) and remarkably boring (for just how sloppy its beats are, and for how out of place the vocals are), a maddening and constantly shifting experience upon each listen.
Inside the Rose is a beautiful record; there’s no doubt about that. The drawback of their approach to chamber pop is that, though the high drama of it all is undoubtedly exciting, it’s tough to have fun listening to it. Inside contains the kind of cinematic music that’s worth listening to even though it isn’t actually attached to a movie, but at times it feels more like they’ve reached the point of their music being all mood, without enough in the foreground to actually make you care about it. It’s beautiful, sure, but it’s sometimes hard to not miss their ramshackle early days, before their ambitions eclipsed their ability to make music that was both artful and fun.