There is something quite reassuring and puerile at the same time in having a favourite band. This adolescent force that makes you identify with the lyrics, refresh feverishly the official web page to see if there are concerts or any kind of news announced; that can even lead you to wear T-shirts or other pieces of merchandise (never went that far I swear!) and makes you think in terms of trajectory, reception, ethos (well, if you are really cracked!) during sleepless nights (which it might have helped to cause by the way).
More interestingly, having a favourite band makes you hear the music differently. I mean, it kind of forces you to construct out of the music a coherent universe that is equally yours, composed of the sum of listenings you have given it (but also, in our society of the spectacle, viewings, readings, dreamings, etc.), which might lead you to feel at home within and learn how to inhabit something that has been constructed by others. The comprehension of the whole thus allows a different apprehension of the music (I propose: behind each notes of them lies the totality of what you have experienced of the band), and allows what Roland Barthes, actually referring to photography, called the punctum, "this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me”. For, yes, the point obviously exists in music too, as much a temporal as a spatial art, and it is called the instant, it is the "poignant detail”, the "partial object” that breaks the code, the meaning conveyed by the musical genre; it is the peak of intensity (which can be of the quietest quality) that comes through the framework up to the listener; the island that only the global stream of music makes possible. Of course, the possibility for such a connection with a particular artist might claim for a little bit of structure in his music (I am not quite sure yet the same could occur with, say, any representative of the free improvisation scene), which is what pop music indeed is meant to offer.
So, what is the meaning of going ceaselessly back to the same music, of always pacing the same territory? This is not about nostalgia, not about being reminded of the circumstances of a particular listening experience. This is what the art of recording allows, meant to repetitive and collective diffusion: they are the same notes for everyone on every time, but you interpret them differently throughout that temporal process, punctuated by these moments that can unexpectedly appear at the tenth, the hundredth or the thousandth listening, and which induce fidelity, as you have a personal relation with what is going on in the music. This is what live performances allow taken relatively to the already recorded material or to your knowledge of the band, as it infers more or less variations to what you already know. It is more geometrical than mystical really, and definitely more emotional than intellectual. It is about how the cartography draws the territory, and what our appreciation of the later means of our own inner organization of lines and stops.
These might only be aesthetical conceptions, but the process can be life-changing when you immerse into it, fascinated and out of yourself, well-disposed to follow the path dug by a particular band wherever it might lead you. Being sensible to this helps assuming the necessarily subjective dimension of any piece of writing upon music, as much as understanding the way it is constituted to make it possible. All of this written so far regardless of the quality of the music, which is yet welcome, this certain relation between the whole and the part being probably favoured by complex, multi-layered music.
One year ago I was brought into contact with Field of Reeds, These New Puritans' latest album, from 2013. It took me a couple of months before I got completely obsessed with the record, to the point of listening to it around ten times daily.
The discovery of the two precedent albums probably helped, in that they were completely different and proved the band was in constant reinvention. 2008's fragmented and territorial Beat Pyramidturned to be a formidable exercise of percussive, repetitive and scarcely melodic themes disseminated into the context of various tracks and circulating throughout the album, where 2010's sophomore and equally percussive Hidden was much more about melodies and completed songs, even if instrumental parts continued spanning multiple tracks, giving circular continuity to an otherwise cryptic and eclectic album that proved a terrific sonic ambition going way further than the band-based sound of Beat Pyramid through the use, on top of the usual equipment, of instruments as diverse as Taiko drums, EDM bass, brass and woodwind ensembles, vibraphones, a children choir, a vast amount of Foley techniques and even an electronic reprise of the orchestral song "Where Corals Lie” composed by Edward Elgar in 1899 and based on a 1859's poem by Richard Garnett.
While they were both, each in its own terms, texturally-driven works, Field of Reeds was the first resting so much on songwriting and orchestral arrangements at the same time, but still incorporating sounds from various sources and going deep into the sound design. The composition was of the highest standards, and the whole approach, keeping on this way of juxtaposing independent sections, a great inner exit for pop-music trying to reinvent itself. Something reinforced by the companion disc, Magnetic Field, comprising two "reworkings from the album cannibalised and produced by Jack Barnett and Bark Psychosis [Graham Sutton being the co-producer of both Hidden and Field of Reeds] using the original album alongside outtakes from the recording sessions and unused field recordings”, which proved a band irreverent enough to remix itself to an extent hardly found for a popular band (the singles from Talk Talk's Laughing Stock-era as well as from Tears for Fears' Songs from the big chair come to mind).
So, when they announced an orchestral rendition of this album in its entirety (plus a few older and new pieces) in Amsterdam last September, I was there. It is music that
Then trumpet player Yazz Ahmed and singer Elisa Rodriguez (who had left in the meantime after "Dream”) enter the stage for a few well-known songs, "3000” from Hidden, which takes advantage of the arrangement made for Expanded, even in a smaller setting, and "Organ Eternal” and "Fragment Two” from Field of Reeds, the former enhanced with powerful drums that turn its futuristic and hyper-sensitive Steve Reich feel into a complete new song, the latter exchanging astutely its piano part with a more electronic, industrial one, but keeping the melodic quality, progressive construction and awesome bass parts that gave it its main strengths. This is the power of what I discussed above, hearing music that you already know by a band you love, and being struck by new details, new ways of performing, that give new light on the song and the whole history of the band at the same time.
But... "This is something new” are the words Jack Barnett uses to introduce the next one, "Juggler”. It actually confirms what "Gloria” hinted at: that the new songs are even more exciting than the ones I already knew – and that I don't know how I will be able to wait until they get released on the next album. A truly work-in-progress, it is difficult to know yet how it will evolve. Once again very electronic, it is at least as melodic as anything on Field of Reeds, but brisk as Hidden, with a galloping drumbeat and percussive sounds (like a brand new electronic kind of vibraphone?), while Jack Barnett and Elisa Rodriguez repeat like a mantra the words "Never give up” in a chorus that would not be out of place in a, say, Coldplay record, notwithstanding the really weird sound production around. Later in the concert I will have the same impression while listening to the fantastic tune "Where the Trees are On Fire”, a song I first heard in Amsterdam. I must say, back then, I preferred "Spitting stars” (the other unheard song played with the orchestra), but I gradually missed "Where the Trees...”, even though I was not too fond of the orchestral arrangement. The new one, with twisted synths and freaking amazing drums, gives it a whole new dimension, and makes it a song impossible to get out of one's mind.
In between, the now classic "We Want War” (the best song of the decade so far as far as I am concerned) and "Attack Music” (which live arrangement sounds astonishing), were played, to the delight of the audience, brought to dance by the percussive quality and the intricate layers of melody lingering on top of that. After "Where the Trees are On Fire”, the band came back for a two-songs encore: the brand new "The Grip”, a subtle duet between Elisa Rodriguez and Jack Barnett and the explosive aforementioned cover of Elgar's song, "Drum Courts – Where Corals Lie”. Once again "The Grip” proved that, whatever the pleasure of hearing already known material, These New Puritans are a band constantly reinventing itself, and contrary to what I wrote on the beginning, the experience of hearing these new songs was even stronger than the ancient ones (and Field of Reeds is my favourite record ever at this point). But, in agreement with what I wrote on the beginning, the new songs operate on a level that affects my whole experience of the band, changing my way of listening to my favourite records, making me more excited than ever to hear what will come next.
During the hours just after the concert, I thought I would never be able to find words to describe the power of the experience and the music played that night. But then I felt I had to leave a trace before everyone (including myself) would forget about it. And give an insight of what might come, sooner or later, from the hands of These New Puritans.