These New Puritans take their name from The Fall’s 1980 song “New Puritan”, in which Salford’s wayward punk seer Mark E Smith delivers one of his diatribes against cultural complacency. “I curse the self-copulation of your lousy record collection,” the pub Savonarola cries.
Several decades later, Smith’s curse echoes in the ears of his Essex followers. Each of These New Puritans’ albums has been radically different, determined not to replicate the auto-generative properties of Smith’s “lousy” music. Their 2008 debut Beat Pyramid channelled their Fall influences into post-punk revivalism. Its follow-up Hidden blended references from the Wu-Tang Clan to Benjamin Britten, into one of 2010’s most provoking and ambitious albums.
Now comes Field of Reeds, a gentler, more reflective affair in which band leader Jack Barnett explores an evolving fascination for modern classical composition. With typical perversity they chose to debut it in a brick-encased nightclub underneath the railway arches at Charing Cross. Call it a puritan’s idea of a joke – commandeering a venue designed for hedonistic dance music in order to unveil a set of serious, introspective songs.
It opened with the musicians filing on in darkness, lit by pulses of light, a tense drone filling the air. Barnett, centre stage with a bass guitar, was joined by his twin brother George on drums and Thomas Hein on electronics. This core trio was supplemented by a trumpeter, a French horn player, a keyboardist and another singer, Portuguese fado vocalist Elisa Rodrigues.
“Spiral” emerged from the gloom, horns lowing like foghorns in the Thames Estuary landscape of the Barnett brothers’ upbringing. Rodrigues lightened the tone with her singing, then Jack dragged us back down into the mud with his groaning vocals.
“V (Island Song)” began with a piano making dissonant patterns alongside Barnett’s unmelodic sing-speak. Then drums and a winding electronic beat came into focus, giving the song a mesmerising sense of in-betweenness, at once atonal and rhythmic. The equally hypnotic “Fragment Two” united modern-classical horn and piano arrangements with pattering beats and alienated vocals.
A sequence of older songs raised the tempo with slamming percussion and stabbing electronics. Then, with perfect sequencing, the beguiling krautrock synthesiser melody of “Organ Eternal” announced a return to the calmer pastures of Field of Reeds. The album’s title track brought the show to a close – a drifting, twinkling number whose uplifting power was reminiscent of Robert Wyatt, cancelling the tense drone with which the set had begun. The only gripe was that Rodrigues’s vocals had been underused. Otherwise this was a terrific display of musical non-conformism.