These New Puritans
Not so long ago, but closer to ten years gone than scene veterans might want to admit, underground music was in the herky-jerky throes of a full-on post-punk revival. Following the fierce, stylistically carnivorous sounds of late 70s/early 80s pioneers, dozens of bands sprung up in Brooklyn and beyond, made their racket, and then either slicked-up for a wider audience (see: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio), got repetitive to the point of diminished returns (see: Interpol, Oneida), or just sort of slunk away entirely (see: The Rapture). The band that seems to have expanded on pure experimentation with the most continual success would be the globe-trotting Liars, now planted back home in LA after stints in Williamsburg and Berlin. Threatening to become elder statesman as opposed to mere Wiccan noise terrorists, Liars are established enough to be counted as a formative influence for groups who are just now becoming their peers. Chief among these acolytes are frightfully pale UK gloom-cookies These New Puritans. This month, new records from both bands—Sisterworld, the Liars' fifth, and Hidden, These New Puritans' second— dropped within a week of each other, providing a neatly coincidental opportunity to see what might still be wrung from neo-post-punk at the dawn of another decade.
That These New Puritans are in thrall to the early Liars records is no earth-shattering observation—the twitchy barking and rhythmic emphasis of the band's 2008 debut, Beat Pyramid, were testament enough. Where the group diverged from the script was with a teenage devotion to hip-hop production techniques (as opposed to the old-school vintage of Liars' ESG name-checking). Hidden takes the rap obsession further still, enlisting MF Doom and J Dilla associate Dave Cooley to sit behind the mixing deck. As a result, the ribcage-vibrating beats on this record are upfront and frickin' humungous, trumping even the most tribal moments of the band who famously declared the drum "not-dead." After a brief, pleasantly pretentious Czech orchestral overture (strangely, Liars' album also uses specifically Prague-recorded orchestral bits to set the mood), the oppressive beats dominate pitch-black, ultra-synthetic tracks like "We Want War" and "Three Thousand." The band seems adroitly plugged-in to a wide spectrum of blog-era pop, effectively channeling the neon ADD of M.I.A.'s Kala into their own "Fire-Power." At its best—ridiculously big enough to include even the sound of swords drawn for apocalyptic confrontation—the dour, horn-colored, children's choir anthem "Attack Music," makes Hidden seem incredibly exciting, brimming with ideas.
So, if These New Puritans are lapping their forebears in terms of in-touch-with-the-times adventurousness, why does Sisterworld still end up as the better record? Any comparison has to start with the continued charisma of Liars' Angus Andrew as opposed to the lifeless void of TNP's Jack Barnett. On "Fire-Power" Barnett accidentally writes his own zinger, "My words evaporate..." aptly describing his mumblepants style amid even the most compelling production turns. Andrew, on the other hand, knows excatly what his voice is capable of at this point, and he reconciles many of his previous vocal modes into a cohesive whole. Take lead track "Scissor," which starts with the lanky Aussieâ€˜s now-trademarked floating falsetto, doubles itself with a slow, rich, medium tone, and then just sprints into an unexpectedly bombastic electro freakout before receding to an anxious vocal chill. On the whole, Sisterworld sounds much like a slightly less-eclectic re-do of 2000's hurried Liars, with excursions into shaggy pop-punk, spooked drone and lacerating post-hardcore all finding their way into the record's flow. A compelling wildman from the start, Andrew has developed a subtle range to match his band's quick dynamic shifts. The humming, grimly playful deadpan of "Drip" in no way prepares a listener for the face-blistering insistency of the following "Scarecrows on a Killer Slant." That song, which sounds a bit like being on the receiving end of an air-raid, is as aggressive as anything theyâ€˜ve done since their debut. Yet the progression back to the gentle twinkling that starts "I Can Still See an Outside World" makes sense without having to be monolithic. The variation in degrees between differing (though all mildly psychotic)sounds on Sisterworld wears better than the consistent, intellectually impressive but ultimately bloodless futurism of Hidden. Liars can animate even very basic elements, like the garage-rock of Angeleno ode "The Overachievers" until it overflows with goofball energy. Moments as stark and compelling as the jack hammer-on-overdrive beat that rules These New Puritans' "Drum Courts—Where Corals Lie" are let down by disappointingly thin attempts at melodic development. While dragging in contemporary influences and bigger, brasher sound techniques snugly updates the mission of the original post-punks, artists totally secure in their own voice usually guarantee a better record. These new pups still have three more or so to catch up.