Issue #18: Beat Pyramid by These New Puritans
May 30, 2016
Released On January 28, 2008
Released By Domino Records & Angular Records
…Thank you WOXY!
Before I begin, I need to lament WOXY. For those that don’t know, WOXY was a beloved internet radio station that employed actual human DJs with discerning tastes. It’s where Mike, Shiv, or Joe first introduced me to These New Puritans, and so much other great music for my hungry ears. Before the station relocated to Austin, TX (only to close up shop soon after), they would set up a temporary studio during SXSW. All day long they would broadcast live bands and it felt almost like being there, without the free beer or crowds. You can still watch the archived videos here. I will say this twice… thank you WOXY!
On paper, These New Puritans make nerdy art music, rich with weightless symbolism, and I’m eating it up. I love the layers of hypnotic mystery that push me down dark rabbit holes of numbers or make me search the internet for clues as to which king I think he might be talking about. The more I try to navigate the themes on this record the more I get lost. It’s really all about the journey and interpretations and they are best left personal.
A lot of bands claim to sound like, or to be inspired by, Joy Division. To the best of my knowledge, These New Puritans have never made these claims but this comparison was heavily thrusted upon them during the promotion of Beat Pyramid. It’s true that the spirit and freedom of Joy Division lives on in these recordings, but some of that creative credit should be attributed to the Martin Hannett of this project, Gareth Jones. Gareth’s resume has the perfect mix of experiences to kick start These New Puritans’ sonic career. He has produced bands like Einstüzende Neubauten and Depeche Mode, mixed Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights and most of the Liars catalog, plus has worked with legendary artists like Wire and Nick Cave. The pairing makes almost too much sense.
The best part about the Beat Pyramid era? It’s just the foundation of their catalog and it sounds nothing like the follow up albums. This is the work of a young band before experiencing the world on tour. As much as I love this album, it’s their worst effort. The rest of their work, so far, could be best summed up with a modified quote from the 2000 film, High Fidelity.
Barry: How about These New Puritans?
Customer: They always seemed…
Barry: They always seemed what? They always seemed really great is what they always seemed. They picked up where your precious Radiohead left off, and you’re sitting around complaining about no more great Radiohead* albums. I can’t believe you don’t own this fucking record. (tosses the record to the customer and walks away) That’s insane. Jesus.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Portrait by Dean Chalkely. Something about Jack Barnett’s gaze is as hypnotic as the band’s music.
It’s finally happened. Even though throughout my time with Off Your Radar, I’ve really enjoyed 95% of what I’ve listened to, I’ve yet to truly fall in love with an artist we’ve covered. But that statement is true no more. These New Puritans have converted me into a fervent follower. From the opening atmospheric intonation on “…ce I Will Say This Twice” into the exhilarating “Numerology (AKA Numbers),” I was hooked. This album is weird, fun, deliberate, playful. I could keep listing off adjectives but I’ll stop there because the thing that I really want to talk about that’s blown me away about this band is that Beat Pyramid, their first full-length album, isn’t even close to being their best. I immediately sought out their other music after one listen to Beat Pyramid, and their ambition and artistic growth on their second and third albums, Hidden and Field Of Reeds, respectively, is exponential and astounding. They take risks with song structure, instrumentation, genre, and more. I mean, the first single from Hidden, “We Want War,” is a seven-minute art rock masterpiece! And I know I’m supposed to be reviewing Beat Pyramid here, and it’s a worthy album, no doubt, but man… Their following records are truly next level. These New Puritan… I feel like my musical world has been turned upside down. I’m head over heels here. Thank you PJ. Thank you, Off Your Radar.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
The repetition of “Every Number Has a Meaning” got to me. I started looking at all the numbers I could find. There are 16 tracks and that’s surely intentional, because of the addition of a number of “throwaway” tracks interspersed throughout the album. The name “These New Puritans” has 16 letters. There’s a song called “C. 16th ±” and there’s another song called “Infinity ytinifnI” which has 16 letters in it. It also is double the number eight (the word “Infinity” has 8 letters. And if you tip that over, you get the symbol for infinity). In the second verse of “Numerology (AKA Numbers),” the band skips the number 8, but the chorus consists of them saying the word “Numbers” eight times. But I think that the answer lies in the line “4 is the number that will run through this music.” At this point you may be asking yourself “uh, where’s the review here?” The answer is: I was engaged by this album. And that engagement went beyond the music. Putting that song at the beginning set something like a mission statement for me. To find the meaning behind the numbers. Even as the band warns that “numerology is all shit.” Does this album count as math rock? I hope so. The songs were angular and complex and surprising. I will continue to listen to this until I’m driven mad. This review has 256 words. Which is 16 squared. 4 to the 4th power. 4 is the number that has run through this review.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Beat Pyramid is a gem of British post-punk pastiche by a group of Londoners who decided to mix up two buckets of Legos, one full of Gang Of Four and the other early 2000s electronica. Repetition and texture is the cornerstone rather than hooks, as they draw inspiration from drone, Hip Hop, and IDM. Cut it up and loop it — a single title is spread across the first and last tracks. It is a cycle made up of cycles. There’s an immediacy about every decision, no fussiness or overthinking. And so it works as vignettes and movements more than songs, championing viscerality instead of pleasantries and romanticized feels. Sharp and stabby, bleeding into warm, glitchy drops. But by no means caustic — there’s plenty of energy to incite the shuffling of feet and swaying of arms. The elements come together for me perfectly on the pithy “MKK3,” with fuzzy groove, spooky synth appearances, and “Speak-singing” (a topic of discussion on an All Songs Considered program PJ and I happened to find en route to an NC show). For all its experimentation, it always feels spacious and free, never bloated nor overwrought. When poking conventions with a stick, focus is key. If you’re looking for something spunky and luminous, this is a charming piece of wax for your collection.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
At first blush, These New Puritans remind me of the early ’00s postpunk revival that gave us a lot of really great nervous, haunting music. This album comes from a time a little after stuff like Bloc Party and Art Brut’s debut albums, but is roughly contemporaneous with the early releases by The Horrors, which makes plenty of sense. They wield a deft mixture of dark, ominous riffing and catchy, syncopated rhythms to create the sort of “death disco” that Public Image Ltd. celebrated back in the first post-punk wave, but they’ve also got more colorful layers and textures interspersed throughout their music, which seems to derive primarily from their increased use of programmed drums and synthesizers. I dig this a lot, to be clear — it reminds me of that early ’90s moment when the UK baggy/rave scene washed up against pre-shoegaze Anglophile rock to create classics like Honey’s Dead by the Jesus And Mary Chain… well, and a lot of other weird shit, like Depeche Mode’s Songs Of Faith And Devotion, or Hotwired by The Soup Dragons. In terms of these sorts of genre collisions, which often landed in a frustrating neither-fish-nor-fowl dead zone but occasionally produced sheer brilliance, Beat Pyramid is near the top of the heap. If you’re someone who still goes back to the first Bloc Party album and who secretly thinks “Reverence” is the Jesus And Mary Chain’s best song, you’re going to find a lot to like here.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
A visual attack that nearly rivals the song’s fiery aural attack.
I am familiar with Beat Pyramid both because of hearing it on WOXY and because it is also one of PJ’s favorite records — he doesn’t force me to listen to anything repeatedly unless it really moves him. I know PJ wrote about WOXY, but it was such a magical time period in our musical development. I worked a job I hated, essentially sitting in a room with five other people doing data entry, and listened to WOXY on my headphones all day (and sometimes on my computer speakers when my officemates were pissing me off). The discovery of new things to listen to via this strange little internet radio station was a huge part of my (often depressing) work day and I remember These New Puritans stuck out amongst a lot of male-fronted indie rock because they’re so different. I can’t think of one band they sound like exactly, but I can think of many musical genres and eras from which they borrow. There’s the staccato rhythms reminiscent of ’90s DC, the Franz Ferdinand-esque melodies and song structures, the rock guitars and attitude of bands like Les Savy Fav, and the sampled horns, which could belong to hip-hop, Spoon or the work of producer Mark Ronson. The collage of sound makes this record endlessly fascinating to me, and I hear different things in it with each listen. I know it’s a small thing, but I am staring at the LP as I type this, and the shiny silver cover and cut out look so damn great in person. It’s representative of Beat Pyramid as a whole: thoughtful, creative, arty, a little pretentious, but overall, a really cool record to add to your collection.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
It’s very clear These New Puritans were heavily influenced by artists like the Wu-Tang Clan and Atmosphere on their 2008 debut Beat Pyramid. There’s a lot of droning sounds and melodic repetition on this record — but it’s not annoying in any way. Just the opposite. It grabs the attention of the listeners and makes the musical journey fun. The track titles are what really get me. “Infinity ytinifnI” and “C. 16th ±” are my favorites (and my favorite tracks too), as well as the intro/outro tracks “…ce I Will Say This Twice” and “I Will Say This Twi….” This is a good record to help you get motivated while tackling a stack of work. I say this as I am being very productive right now.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
“What’s your favourite number? What does it mean?” This has been in my head all week and it will not leave. I now spend the majority of my days in a philosophical quandary, questioning the very nature of having a favourite number and trying to extrapolate if it means anything at all. “Numerology (AKA Numbers)” isn’t the strongest track on Beat Pyramid, but it is the one that clings to my ear like the proverbial worm. I was hesitant about These New Puritans going into this week. Art rock has never been a genre that’s sat well with me. It’s also a genre so loosely defined, that bands from The Beach Boys, to Frank Zappa, to Talking Heads are all labelled under it. But Beat Pyramid eventually won me round. I’ll admit, it took a few listens. At first, I found it an almost overwhelming experience — there is so much going on in each song. Re-adjusting rhythms, guitar and keyboard staccato, nuanced noises. But each new listen, I found something else I enjoyed. “Elvis” is my favourite track and also probably the most mainstream on the album, and a good entry point for those wanting to dip their toes in the water. Beat Pyramid is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the beauty of music is that it isn’t a one-shot thing. On my first listen, I was decidedly mixed on These New Puritans debut, but the more I listen, the more I appreciate the craft that went into it and what it was trying to offer. It may not be a record I return to often, but I’m definitely glad I tried it all the same.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
When artists pursue a form out of the context in which it arose, it creates interesting aesthetic conundrums. For example, take the Stray Cats. The original rockabilly acts were combining hillbilly music and jump blues as a way to reflect what they heard around them, with a healthy layer of atomic age lunacy for good measure. The Stray Cats added a cartoonish sensibility but played the music fairly straight. Some, like yours truly, wondered “Why bother?” when there are any number of albums collecting the real deal. In the case of Beat Pyramid, the 2008 debut by These New Puritans, it’s not rockabilly that they are drawing on but post-punk, the wonderful combination of art rock and punk that arose around 1979 just as the first flame of punk was dying out. Wire, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and Joy Division are some of the avatars of that era, all dissonant keyboards, angular rhythms, and jarring guitars. The difference between These New Puritans and some of the aughties post-punk retreads like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol may come down simply to conviction: I just believe them more. It also helps that Beat Pyramid is beautifully produced, with ground-shaking bass, gleaming synths, and layers of guitar. Even so, there’s no apology for their sound or attempt to put a pop sheen on what is emphatically supposed to be an underground sound. Songwise, they come strong out of the gate. After a brief intro, “Numerology (AKA Numbers)” kicks in and it’s a wonderful statement of purpose, with Jack Barnett declaiming “What’s your favorite number? What does it mean?” over jagged rhythms. You immediately know exactly what you’re in for and TNP continue to deliver on that promise throughout the short album. This is one of the few occasions where what could have been cheap revivalism or a pale imitation manages to hold its own with the originals of the genre. Good show.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Live photo by hoya. Don’t know what that shirt is, but I want one.
I’m always awed by albums that can max out both the “Fun to listen to” and “Fun to think about” categories. Times when you’re listening and feel inspired to soak in the moment even though your brain is darting from one reference point to the next, coming up with weird ideas and connections. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that Those New Puritans multitask in these two ways, given that Jack Barnett once described a project he’d been working on as “dancehall meets Steve Reich,” but it’s definitely easier said than done. The Puritans get there on Beat Pyramid via a really smart and effective sense of compartmentalization — this pattern for this many bars, this phrase repeated exactly this many times… tidy yet propulsive. Like a really pretty schematic could be drawn for each song. I mentioned reference points because one kept zooming to the front of my mind this week, and that’s bounce music. At several points — when “Every number has a meaning” is repeated in “Numerology (AKA Numbers),” for example — I felt like I was back at the Hippodrome seeing Big Freedia during 2013’s Fall Line Fest. It’s a thrill being transported back there, to a moment in which I was flooded with new cultural information. At first I thought the repetition meant that the lyrics were an afterthought. Now I think it’s all part of a bigger schematic — one I’m happy getting lost in.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
If you are looking for an eclectic or melodious album, Beat Pyramid from These New Puritans probably isn’t for you. But if you want a record that hits you right in the face with infectious beats, thought provoking vocals, challenging what you can do in the confines of a band this album is definitely one you should check out. As I mentioned, this record isn’t meant to be subtle or charming. From the outset, Jack Barnett’s vocals are brash, bordering on monosyllabic. (If you are a fan of Sleaford Mods, once again this is an album you should definitely be listening to.) Everything feels like it is on a loop from the guitar, bass, drums, synths and use of samples and it’s all a platform for Barnett’s rapier like vocals. Comparisons to The Fall’s Mark E Smith are fully justified. All of this gives the vocals gravitas that perhaps wouldn’t exist without the chaotic fury that is instilled throughout the record. I’m pretty disappointed in myself for never having heard of These New Puritans before, so once again this project has thrown up a hidden gem that I will continue to listen to. To dissect this record or band more would be doing the art a disservice after only six or seven listens. I fully intend to listen and dig deeper into These New Puritans back catalogue and fully implore anyone reading this to do the same.
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
Beat Pyramid is an interesting concept. As a name, it resonates a number of ideas. One concept could be how does one engage the sounds of the relics with modern time. These New Puritans might consider that with how they take the sounds of Wire and Public Image Ltd. and bring those into the twenty-first century. Another thought is the process in which they do and how while a pyramid represents something from the past. There is the modernization of these symbols and how they could exist in a sonic universe. The beat pyramids in question would be how the group explains that Beat Pyramid was involuntarily a reaction to the sounds of Wu-Tang Clan (particularly RZA) and Aphex Twins. Taking those two unique sounds and establishing your own vision of that amalgam is impressive to say the least — and it would appear that These New Puritans pull it off. “En papier” is the best example I can find on this that ties all of those themes together. Whether it’s the layers of dissonance surrounding every moment of the song or the guitars that go from sparse to upfront and center, this is These New Puritans at their most self-expressive. “Infinity ytinifnI” and “Navigate-Colours” are other strong examples. Another thing to mention is how strong of a debut record Beat Pyramid is. In most cases, you can get a sense of a group after a few records. Upon reflection, you tend to see the fibers of what is arguably their more refined sound. With These New Puritans, every moment feels like a well-rounded concept, with the opening being a spin on “…ce I Will Say This Twice” and “I Will Say This Twi…” and even the momentary breaks found between songs. Each moment is well-earned and it shows that even with their influences fully explained in influences, it never gave you a true sense of what to expect when hearing the first LP from These New Puritans. Beat Pyramid is as strong of a debut as anyone could ever hope for or even imagine.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Beat Pyramid is a hard record for me to talk about. It carries so much deeper meaning within its modern post-punk sound that a naturally curious music lover like myself just wants to discover the context behind the eccentric song title, pointed lyrics, and abstract musical moments. But if I immerse myself in the world of Beat Pyramid, I’m also missing a crucial point that TNP is making. “I will say this twice,” Barnett states at the beginning and conclusion of the record. If we view everything else as intentional on the record, why not this basic tenement that demands this all be viewed in a fleeting or cursory manner? That’s not to say I’ll listen to this record twice and never again — songs like “C. 16th ±” and “Elvis” are just too vibrant and frenzied to never hear again in my lifetime. But trying to extrapolate the broader implications of their opaque lyrics and spazzy samples is ultimately pointless. There are plenty of chances for epiphanies in Beat Pyramid, and if none of them made a lightbulb appear behind you, then don’t bother backtracking for clues. You’ve got two tries to learn what Beat Pyramid is saying, but thankfully there’s no limit on experiencing it and I intend to take full advantage of that.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Sound.Color.Motion by Farewell Flight
Chosen By Andrew Cothern