If These New Puritans' sophomore record, Hidden, taught us anything, it was that second-guessing them in the future would likely turn out to be a futile venture. On their debut, Beat Pyramid, they produced what was essentially an eccentric take on the kind of post-punk that had been enjoying a second renaissance around that time; erratic, angular guitars, furious drums and unusually-placed layers of synth combined to make a record that sounded thrilling half the time and plain awkward the rest. With Hidden, though, they took a dizzying lurch in a new direction, incorporating all manner of unusual instrumentation and unorthodox composition to produce something that felt genuinely worthy of the tag 'art rock'.
There is one area, though, in which Field of Reeds demonstrates an immediate consistency with its predecessors; if you're not particularly enamoured with bands that, at least at face value, come over a little pretentious, These New Puritans mightn't be for you. From mention of six-foot drums and simulating human heads smashing in the press release for Hidden to their often-bizarre lyrics and even their early links to high fashion houses, this is not a band especially taken with presenting themselves as accessible. Indeed, Field of Reeds is presented as a three-part suite, rather than a nine-song album. Sonically, the trio have continued down the road they set off on with Hidden, although that's not to say that different influences haven't permeated their consciousness in the intervening years.
Opener 'This Guy's in Love with You' sets the tone; the piano's minimal, delicate, with fuzzy, distant vocals lurking somewhere in the background; it sounds a little like the title track from Kid A, as heard from a hundred miles away. The horns that dominate the song's second half are ushered in slowly; one of the most striking things about Field of Reeds is how careful it sounds - nothing's urgent, nothing's rushed. The pace does pick up on 'Fragment 2', which is wonderfully well-mixed instrumentally - sharp drums, yearning horns - but rendered an awkward listen by Jack Barnett's off-kilter mumble. The vocal style he's adopted for this record tends to work better on the songs where the backing's a little more minimalist, as segment one's closer, the piano-driven 'The Light in Your Name', proves.
The nine-minute 'V (Island Song)' is Field of Reeds' crown jewel; it's here that the band begin to expand the album's sonic palette, taking an introduction largely similar to its first segment and builds towards genuine groove, bringing pulsing synths in and out of the mix and using Barnett's vocals in a manner that's complimentary to the rest of the instrumentation, rather than antagonistic. Elsewhere, 'Spiral' is far more sinister; haunting, almost chanted female vocals occasionally interrupted by a jarring screech or sudden percussive crash, before it all collapses into a quiet, two-minute outro. It's an uncomfortable listen, but an enthralling one all the same.
The band are happy to play with more straightforward structure on the likes of 'Organ Eternal', and as challenging a listen as Field of Reeds can often prove, there's no disputing that they sail a little too close to the wind in parts as far as how directly they reference their influences. There are touches of Kid A and Amnesiac everywhere, whilst the vocals on 'Dream' so blatantly ape Björ that it's difficult to take them seriously. Less grating are the subtle nods to late Talk Talk, Laughing Stock in particular.
Field of Reeds is an altogether quieter, more reflective record than Hidden, and in some respects feels like a step sideways as compared to the huge leap forward they took last time round. For an album produced in such an overtly perfectionist manner (repeating the same drum take seventy-eight times, spending an entire day recording smashing glass) it's certainly flawed, but it's completely arresting where it does succeed ; it's comfortably the most fascinating release of the year so far.