Mercury vs Neptune Part 4: Foals vs These New Puritans

Foals are an Oxford band, and These New Puritans are a Southend-on-Sea band. Both are on their second albums, and both are apparently considered departures from their debuts (though this applies more to These New Puritans). Please welcome Foals’ ‘Total Life Forever’ and These New Puritans’ ‘Hidden’!

The start of ‘Total Life Forever’s first track, ‘Blue Blood’ sounds oddly like Fleet Foxes, not a comparison I was expecting to make here. It is a successful start though, and from here the track adds more and more parts, each pleasingly distinct in the mix (drums, bass, a clean guitar line, various vocals, more guitar), until returning to the stripped down Fleet Foxey opening. I feel well introduced to the album; this is a promising start!

The clean production seems to apply to the whole album actually; you can always make out the individual parts of a song, which is a good thing! It might not be for all music (sometimes you want a load of distortion and messiness), but it fits the style of this album perfectly. Similarly, the album cover matches this feel of clean clearness very well, and is also a very nice picture in itself; great cover.

What this album isn’t is fast and frantic, which is what I was expecting from what I’ve heard said about Foals (they are a band that one hears about a lot, but I never got round to actually listening to them). This may be moving on from what was on the first album, or maybe I got the wrong impression, but either way this album seems far smoother and perhaps calmer than that; the vocals are generally laid-back, and the tracks mainly seem to move at mid-speed. It at no point feels ‘angular’ or ‘edgy’.

I’m finding that I prefer the quiet tracks, or rather the tracks that start of quiet and then build (there aren’t really any fully loud songs here). This is might be something to do with the aforementioned layering of different sounds and instruments; this can be better appreciated when you start with very little and grow to lots. Or perhaps these particular songs are just better? Anyway, on early listens, the aforementioned ‘Blue Blood’ and the slow developing (over almost 7 minutes), really damn good ‘Spanish Sahara’ both struck me as highlights. Another good un is ‘This Orient’, which has a bit more pace, and will probably lodge the prominent phrase “this western feeling” into your head for a while. ‘Miami’ has a nice bit of fiddly funk going on too.

So this quite a good album. It certainly has two very fine songs in ‘Blue Blood’ and ‘Spanish Sahara’, and there aren’t really any clunkers, nothing that feels like filler. But there’s also a fair deal of ‘the same’ on this album; as I said, the production is a constant, and the vocals and staccato guitar notes are present and correct in every song, so the sound sometimes lacks variety. I suppose this album just didn’t really grab me all that much; its good enough, but a few tracks aside, it doesn’t seem all that special to me. Oh well!

Now onto These New Puritans, and their album ‘Hidden’! This is something different, certainly. The PR for this album has gone into raptures about the amounts of ‘weird’ instruments and influences that have gone into this album: “Six-foot Japanese Taiko drums, a thirteen piece brass and woodwind ensemble, sub-heavy beats, prepared piano, a children’s choir… and a melon with cream crackers attached struck by a hammer, used to simulate the sound of a human head being smashed”. “Where dancehall meets Steve Reich” has also been used by the frontman, Jack Barnett, to describe the record. This ain’t your usual pop album sonny.

The blurb does not lie (although I couldn’t spot the melon-head myself). The album opens with ‘Time Xone’, an ominous two minute brass and woodwind instrumental, and most songs contain elements of these (there is also another short woodwind instrumental further through the album). There are the voices of choirs in a few tracks, some rattling chains, and at one memorable moment on ‘We Want War’, the lingering steely sound of a sword being drawn. But the most notable feature of this album is quite plainly the drums. Most songs feature these simple but hard-hitting rhythms, presumably played on the Japanese Taiko drums mentioned before. Wikipedia tells me that one of the original purposes of these drums was to motivate troops and lead them into warfare, and this seems extremely appropriate given their prominent role in two of the albums major tracks, ‘We Want War’ and ‘Attack Music’. Here, and on other songs too, the drums, sounding very loud and booming in the mix, drive the songs forward with power and strength. They are not complex; indeed, it doesn’t sound like the band even use a drum kit, so there are no subtle or inventive drumming rhythms (such as on Grizzly Bear’s ‘Two Weeks’) on show here. Instead, they are more tribal, more forceful, more aggressive, which fits perfectly with the oppressive nature of the music.

‘We Want War’ is the defining track of this album. It really is a massive, powerful pieces of music. At 7 minutes long, it storms in after ‘Time Xone’ to intimidate and dwarf the listener, starting with those Taiko drums, beat hard, soon joined by droning woodwind. Then the drums start breaking out a little more; soon, we vaguely hear frontman Jack Barnett, almost hidden (aaah, album title!) below the other sounds. As it carries on (I’m not going to describe the whole track moment by moment, there’s too much going on), there is a chant of “let us in let us out let us in let us out…”, more brass and woodwind, some electronic beats to accompany the war drums, a choir… All the different elements mesh together impressively well. There are times when the drums drop out, the choir surges with the brass, and then the drums return, marching onwards to war. I don’t think I’ve given a very good impression of this song, so go and listen to it! I suppose the fact that I was unable to sum it up says something for it’s quality and complexity…

Other tracks are also well worth your time. The lighter, piano driven ‘Hologram’ reminds me of somewhat of ‘Amnesiac’-era Radiohead or solo Thom Yorke, in a very good way. ‘Attack Music’ has a strange sort of groove to it’s beats, if choose to think about it, along with some more of the menace of the earlier ‘War’. Likewise, on ‘Fire-Power’ and ‘Three Thousand’ it is possible to see what Mr Barnett means about the ‘dancehall meets Steve Reich’ on this album. It would be a strange club indeed that would play this, but it would work. These, and in fact most of ‘Hidden’s tracks, combine electronic sounds with organic ones; bassoons and sub-bass, taiko drums and dubstepish beats, everything mingles together in an odd but interesting way, helping to cement this album’s uniqueness.

The key question must be, does it work as an album of music? Talk of your influences and use of strange sounds can only take you so far; more is required to form great music. So do These New Puritans succeed with ‘Hidden’? Yes, yes they do. Certainly, there are many flaws on this record: a few of the sounds used feel a little cheap (particularly on ‘Attack Music’), the breakdown sections on ‘Orion’ go on a bit too long, the deep voice at the start of ‘We Want War’ is a bit silly, Jack Barnett’s voice isn’t actually very good when singing rather than speaking… But these are minor chinks in ‘Hidden’s armour (an appropriate metaphor, given that Mr Barnett is apparently keen on sporting chain-mail when performing live). This is a highly ambitious record, but also a highly good one. It is, as far as I am aware, unique (it is certainly miles from anything on either the Mercury or the Neptune list), and also fits coherently together as an album, a whole piece of work. Serious credit is due to These New Puritans.

Don’t be put off by the perceived ‘weirdness’ of ‘Hidden’. While it isn’t a cheerful pop album, it also isn’t a pile of noise. This may be a little ‘difficult’, but it is perfectly listenable, and well worth your attention. It is a shame that such an ambitious and adventurous album as this was not nominated for the Mercury’s, as they are supposed to be celebrating the ‘cutting-edge’ of new British music. It doesn’t get much more cutting-edge than ‘Hidden’; it even has swords on it.

Mercury: 1 / Neptune: 3

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