As part of Manchester International Festival’s David Lynch Presents… weekend at HOME, the ever-evolving These New Puritans will be performing a one-off set featuring re-imagined pieces from Lynch’s films, presented in dialogue with their own back catalogue. With support from Manchester psych-rockers Whyte Horses and long-time Lynch collaborator Chrysta Bell, this is going to be a special evening indeed.
Southend duo These New Puritans do what many others deem either too difficult or too dangerous. With each album they put out, they totally reinvent their sound, shedding their musical skin to reveal new, unexpected layers. Starting off as a post-punk band, core members Jack Barnett and his twin brother George Barnett released Beat Pyramid in 2008. Jagged, atmospheric and eccentric, it followed in the art-punk tradition of Wire and The Fall, with agitated, spoken-sung vocals, syncopated guitars and flurrying drums. And yet, the record managed a defiant sense of modernism. By incorporating elements of hip-hop, dubstep and electronica, they injected new life into the genre, leading to a wave of success that carried them to album number two.
This one could have been an easy win. They could have expanded the old formula slightly and made Beat Pyramid 2.0. Instead, they ripped up their own rule book and started again. Reaching beyond the mortal world of its predecessor and into a dark place of experimentalism, 2010’s Hidden was driven by pummelling Japanese Taiko drums and dystopian soundscapes comprising a thirteen-piece brass and woodwind ensemble, prepared piano, an ominous children’s choir and Foley recording techniques which mimicked the sound of a human skull being crushed. With the muscular ‘We Want War’ and the bombastic ‘Attack Music’ being the two standouts, this hugely ambitious record was lauded by dumfounded critics and told-you-so fans around the world.
For album number three, people were now expecting something different. And yet, 2013’s Field of Reeds still surprised. Turning their hands to neo-classical, avant-garde pop, the Barnett brothers’ brave new world tested the limits of their compositional powers. Abstract and dissonant, its slowly blooming bleakness is totally captivating. It begins with a dream-like, half-remembered version of Herb Alpert’s ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’, and closes with a supernatural piano-led odyssey featuring Adrian Peacock, owner of the lowest voice in Britain. As for Jack Barnett’s vocals, he places total trust in the raw power of sound on this record, singing not lyrics but disorientating phonetic babble. In that last song, however, he clearly elocutes the line: ‘You asked if the islands would float away… I said, yes’. Despite the melancholia that surrounds it, this concluding statement feels almost celebratory – like a flagpole marking a moment in time when the band felt utterly untethered.
Six long years of silence followed, before the arrival of this year’s Inside the Rose. A bewitching and majestic record, it fuses the insularity of Field of Reeds with Hidden’s muscle power. Unfolding like a strange dream, juxtaposing genres and styles from jazz to opera to electronica are placed in close quarters. It really shouldn’t make sense, but like a dreamer’s acceptance of the absurd, it does. Lamenting strings, silky jazz vibraphones and militaristic snares open the album, with Jack Barnett quick to announce his newly commanding, lyric-led vocals. Two songs later in ‘Beyond Black Suns’, pounding electronic kicks and sounds of bottles smashing are paired with sugary vocals from Taiwanese singer-producer Scintii. Out of nowhere, an operatic soprano then warbles into view, before a vocal ensemble completes the journey with a section that leans on Steve Reich’s ‘Music For 18 Musicians’. It’s an oddly wonderful track. The album’s obvious highlight, though, is the devastating centrepiece, ‘Where The Trees Are On Fire’. An elegy to the natural world, it’s perhaps the most directly moving song they’ve ever written, and proof that for all their intellect, These New Puritans can still hit the heart hard.
In many ways, These New Puritans are the perfect band for a David Lynch event. The disorientating darkness that pervades their records is strangely reminiscent of the mood of much of the director’s work. Both parties are also restlessly creative, and dogged in their pursuit of the strange and the uncharted. It’s going to be fascinating, therefore, to see how the band goes about reimagining pieces from Lynch’s iconic films and series. With little as yet given away, we know that we’re going to be hearing music by Angelo Badalamenti and David Bowie, but how this is going to be interwoven with These New Puritan’s own back catalogue is anyone’s guess. As for the rest of the evening, musician, actress and long-time Lynch collaborator Chrysta Bell is to open the proceedings, before Whyte Horses perform a set inspired by the mythical Roadhouse in Lynch’s Twin Peaks. With much mystery and anticipation surrounding it all, this is a particularly exciting event within the David Lynch Presents… calendar. If you’re a fan of Lynch or of any of the acts involved, it’s unmissable.