Concert review of These New Puritans at the Barbican, 23 October 2010

A little late this, one, but I've had to do a concert review for an application form, and so reproduce it here for interest. I will warn you it does venture into Paul Morley-speak, but then he did do the programme notes after all. Nothing to do with history, just good exciting music.

These New Puritans with the Britten Sinfonia and London Children's Choir, Barbican Centre, London, 23 October 2010.

These New Puritans are a four-piece guitar band, but this was no ordinary rock gig. For a start, we saw watermelons being smashed with hammers to a pulp that splattered across the back curtain, no doubt leaving the Barbican with a hefty dry-cleaning bill. Yet even watermelons aside, this was an exceptional performance, one that shows how British alternative rock music can be experimental and genuinely break the boundaries between rock and classical. 

Their current release, 'Hidden', is no ordinary rock album. Singer Jack Barnett scored the album for lower woodwind and brass. He was inspired by Benjamin Britten's Seascapes, pieces that clearly resonate with the band’s upbringing in Southend-on-Sea. The idea to perform with full accompaniment came not from the band, however, but from the Britten Sinfonia, one of the new breed of risk-taking ensembles around today. So up on stage, beside the monitors, amps and guitars, were contrabassoon, alto flute, bass clarinet, tuba and bass trombone among other wind and brass. For the first time, the choral parts were performed live, by London Children's Choir. The rest of the stage was crowded with a grand piano, and a whole swathe of percussion, including a huge Japanese Taiko drum, a glockenspeil and two vibraphones, and that pile of watermelons (used to recreate the sound of, apparently, skulls being cracked).

The band were clearly nervous. Jack and his twin brother George are strikingly only 22 years old, and they briefly look anxious at the challenge they had not tackled before on such a scale. Jack wore his stage gear of a shirt made of chainmail. But perhaps tellingly, it was underneath his t-shirt rather than, as usual, on top. Only I and my fellow audience members on the first couple of rows could see his hidden chainmail. Did it represent the album title ‘Hidden’, a sign that the music was more introspective than the brash exuberance of their debut album ‘Beat Pyramid’? Or was Jack keeping his former self closer to his chest as his band metamorphasised into an all-consuming spectacle?

Conductor AndrĂ© de Ridder faced a major logistical difficulty of co-ordinating a tight rock band with the players, choir and percussion. This meant that the first few songs were slightly disjointed and not as tight as they are on record. Yet that reflected the nature of the music: edgy, difficult, challenging. By the middle of the piece the band and performers had settled down. The Britten Sinfonia masterfully built up the rich and dark autumny timbres of the pieces. I would have preferred them to have been stronger in the sound balance, but the emphasis of the whole performance was on the urging, difficult rhythms. The tightest playing came when the glockenspiel and vibraphones interacted in a section that is part-gamelan part-Philip Glass. The children's choir added an ethereal but still sinester overtone to the piece, in a manner that recalled the female 'sirens' in Holst's 'Neptune’. Overall, a superb concert well worthy of the standing ovation received at the end.


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