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These New Puritans - Inside the Rose Music Album Reviews

On their fourth album, the visionary English experimenters conjure a sinister and beguiling new world.

What if the Knife had peaked in the heyday of MTV Unplugged? What if James Blake and Scott Walker co-produced an Oliver Sim solo album? What if someone slipped a Nine Inch Nails CD to those singing monks from the ’90s? Such are the undreamed-of questions answered, at various times, by Inside the Rose, the fourth studio album by Essex shape-shifters These New Puritans, whose website summary describes them, with maddening understatement, as “an English experimental music group whose music is not easily categorized.”

Still, attempts have been made. Twin brothers Jack and George Barnett—now the group’s sole members, following a decade of periodic collaboration with Thomas Hein, Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, and a 35-piece orchestra—started by exorcising their most evident influences: twitchy UK post-rave acts like Aphex Twin, itchy UK post-punk bands like the Fall, and caressing UK post-rockers like Bark Psychosis. (The latter’s Graham Sutton has been helping produce TNPs records since their second album Hidden, where the guitars of post-punk revival subsided behind subby EDM and new-music bassoons.) This inventory of early influences highlights two enduring qualities of a mercurial group: They live in spaces where conventional genre descriptions fall short, and they’re very, very English.

As These New Puritans evolved into a visionary post-classical pop group, their music became marked by the whisper of war, a bellicose current their first great song made overt. Inside the Rose opener “Infinity Vibraphones” is swept with evil-armada strings and battlefield snares, even as it spills imperceptibly from something adjacent to “Carol of the Bells” into silky vibraphone jazz. On “Into the Fire,” an adrenalized electronic scribble scrambles through a fortress of piano chords pounded by drums. Yet the group render warlike tropes so gently, with such containment and poise, that they seem to dramatize figurative battles of the heart rather than literal ones.

Putting aside musical intricacies, Inside the Rose just sounds amazing, conjuring a lustrous, lucid world shaken by distant explosions. The drones of strings, pianos, and electronics are offset by bright accents of tuned percussion, sustaining an atmosphere of anticipation and wonder. Jack Barnett’s voice is a heavy syrup, flowing without friction through crevices in capacious compositions. On each song, a few spare elements are blown up huge and then riveted down in a way that ought to feel airless, but instead pulses with energy. “Anti-Gravity” makes a trap kit sound like a concert timpani, as a phrase that seems to flicker between “never give up” and “never get up” steps down through an arrangement like winding stairs.

These New Puritans have developed a sound that is at once unusually specific and unusually vague, matching music and lyrics in a mode of soft, insistent questioning that opens and opens without ever disclosing its cloistered center. “Isn’t life a funny thing?/All these words and they say nothing,” Barnett intones as “Beyond Black Suns” shivers toward its operatic conclusion. This kind of diffident eloquence pervades an album that realizes more vividly than ever before the bewitching world These New Puritans discovered after they went off the map: One where sound communicates more than speech, serenity is sinister, and obscurity is less like a solid wall than an abstract door to possibility.

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