Anyone curious to discover the limits of the outside-the-box Southend-on-Sea-raised rockers These New Puritans had their questions answered tonight at the newly-refurbished Electric Brixton. After two peerless if wholly bewildering albums in Hidden and Field Of Reeds, and judging by their acclaimed Bush Hall and Barbican performances of Hidden three years ago, it seemed the band could do no wrong. But a recent tweet from singer and multi-instrumentalist Jack Barnett suggested 2013 could be the last year we see These New Puritans. “By my calculations this week will be our last UK tour, so come,” he wrote.
Come they did. Everyone from Hurts‘ Theo Hutchcraft to Pixie Geldof headed to SW9 to witness one of the UK’s most unclassifiable bands in action. But from the onset, the sound was plagued by teething problems. Neither baggy suit jacket and thin jeans wearing Jack, who seemed to reluctantly adopt frontman duties as he awkwardly wielded his bass guitar, nor Portuguese chanteuse Elisa Rodrigues, who looked either very cold, very indifferent and/or very bored, presented much in the way of entertainment from the front. Despite Jack’s occasional offering of a wry smile, it was nearly impossible to discern a single word he sang, save on the last song. Whether that was a fault of the soundman or the deliberate choice is unclear, but it exacerbated the feeling that the band were presiding over a bit of a sonic mess onstage.
For all that, things had gotten off to an intriguing start, with a rotating explosion of red lights, smoke and race car rumblings emanating from an otherwise empty stage. With the band boasting a French horn and flugelhorn player, and all finally assembled, they eased into Spiral, with its warm meanderings of brass and spooky bass rumblings.
And from there they launched their own nuclear assault on musical logic, lurching between the bass-heavy workings of the abrasive Hidden (Three Thousand, Attack Music, We Want War) and the atmospheric burners of Field Of Reeds (Fragment Two, Light in Your Name, Organ Eternal). It amounted to a kind of musical showdown between the songs, all of which employed a huge amount of bass, and it needed the clear singing voice of Elisa to cut through the fog and grab the vocal duties. But sadly she stayed locked in the background.
If frustrations abounded until that point, the band rounded out their set in truly majestic fashion. Choosing the curtain closer of V (Island Song) showed that finally the band knew their best live song. And it didn’t disappoint. From behind the kit, Jack’s brother George shared a mind-boggling display of drumming. His playing was on point all night. The passage of play that dominated the second half of the tune was completely spellbinding, splicing a ride cymbal to pieces while he dominated his toms and bass drum in revolving intervals. The spotlight trained on him for the first – and last – time betrayed the knowledge that something special was happening, pushing the crowd off into the night with a collective smile.
If this is indeed the swansong of These New Puritans, they went out on a head-scratcher. Their totally unheralded wild abandon of time signatures, uncanny deployment of brass instruments, unusual melodic interaction between players and delirious use of sub bass will be sorely missed – warts and all.