Black Country, New Road's debut album, For the first time was only released last year, but I knew right away that this band is something special and that whatever they release next, you're going to want to look out for. While FTFT was a great album, it was a short, rather disjointed one that had obvious influences, albeit manifested in a very unique way. I was hoping it wouldn't have been long until they truly came into their own sound, but I did not expect that to happen so soon, because only a year later, we already have BC,NR's sophomore release, Ants From Up There, which comes with a fairly significant change of sound. Their post-punk roots are mostly gone, even including a lot of their math rock riffs, plus more so this time, you can really feel the presence of this 7 member band. If their debut was Slint meets Black Midi, then this is Steve Reich meets Arcade Fire, but even then I can only compare this record to those two artists in a limited capacity, because I honestly can't think of many albums out there that sound quite like this one does.
The instrumental "Intro" that is not even a minute long gives only a small taste of what is to come, but immediately showcases the impressive Reich-esque, minimalist compositional skills of the band, proving that they are back with an even grander instrumental presentation, and this is only the very start. This continues into "Chaos Space Marine" which is one of the group's most fun and direct songs, with very tightly arranged interlocking guitar, bass and horn riffs. (Now ex-) frontman Isaac Wood is sounding a bit more like a traditional singer on this record, he is not as much of a talk-singer here, but I think this is for the best because it not only breaks the Slint comparisons but it is an even better presentation of his very distinct and heavily vibrato vocals. This brings me to the lyrics on the track, as well as the record in general which seems to be a concept album of sorts, where Isaac portrays himself as this chaos space marine character trying to find his way back to his own planet as an allegory for this failing relationship that consumes the record. There are so many fantastic quotables with not only the first mention of Billie Eilish, but a standout for me that is "So I'm leaving this body and I'm never coming home again, I'll bury the axe here between the window and the kingdom of men", which I know will go down as one of the best choruses of 2022. This also features one of numerous mentions of the Concorde motif, as if this ship is Isaac's metaphor for his lover that he is trying to get back to which brings us into the next track of the same title.
The oddly beautiful "Concorde" has fantastic instrumental transitions across its linear build which starts with a gentle arrangement, mostly of guitar with additional piano and a mandolin. This explodes into and array of trumpets and strings which is both cathartic and chilling, especially with Isaac's passionate cries and poetry, with a highlight for me being "So don't tell me you're hungry cause darling I'm starving myself" where he and Concorde seem to reunite, but their relationship is clearly not what it once was. What is even more surprisingly beautiful is the following "Bread Song" which has a similarly subdued string backed build-up, into a gorgeous, lush climax. Isaac's lyrics don't come off as being overly serious with lines about "not eating toast in his bed, leaving behind crumbs" but I love the way he connects this to wanting to maintain his problematic long distance relationship, just hoping his lover won't want to be intimate with someone else just because she can not be physically close with him. I can't help but feel that this is the weirdo indie kid equivalent to a Time Out of Mind era Bob Dylan ballad.
"Good Will Hunting" opens with sci-fi synths, and a catchy 3/4 guitar and bass melody, with numerous time signature changes as the song goes through different variations of this riff and more instruments are added. The sour synth tones return for the last quarter of the song, when it bursts into a crescendo of distorted guitars and Isaac screaming pained lyrics of wanting his lover to depend on him for once, instead of having this relationship seem so one sided. The Steve Reich type compositions return in a big way on "Haldern" with short repeating phrases of guitar and piano, later joined by horn and violin shots. What each instrument is playing is quite musically distinct from one another, but all coalesce poly-rhythmically into one ethereal piece. "Mark's Theme" is a shorter instrumental interlude of sorts, but a very pretty one at that, being a swaying ballad mostly consisting of Lewis' wonderful saxophone playing, which is all the more better when I found out that this was written for his uncle who passed who has a huge supporter of the band.
This marks the start of the longest three tracks on the record, the first being the incredibly dramatic "The Place Where He Inserted The Blade", which is another swaying ballad, and I compared "Bread Song" to a Dylan ballad earlier, but apparently this was the main influence for this track, specifically Dylan's newest record. The horns and the vocal harmonies are extremely theatrical and lead to one of the most intense and gratifying crescendos on the LP. And yes, while at its core this song is truly about Isaac watching cooking tutorials and he keeps messing up the recipes, it actually plays perfectly into the album's themes and I wouldn't expect anything less from BC,NR. Isaac mentions not being able to cook for anyone else now, because every time he does, he is reminded of when he used to make food for his lover, hence why he keeps messing up, and while the refrains of "show me the place where he inserted the blade" does refer to trying to cut food correctly like the tutorial demonstrates, I also read this as a weirdly endearing metaphor where he tries to comfort this girl, asking her about traumas from a new relationship since they split.
The 9 minute "Snow Globes" starts with a grand, slow building guitar intro with light strings that has a post-rock progression to it which reminds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The song only gets more dramatic with the desperation in Isaac's vocals and lyrics, which uses the story of Catherine of Aragon pleading to God to forgive Henry VIII because she knows that he believes there is a God controlling everything, as shown in the fantastic "God of weather, Henry knows snow globes don't shake on their own" hook. Also was that a Killers reference? Somehow this manages to play into the album's narrative, where Isaac constantly pleads to his lover for her well-being even if it may not be the best for him, just like Catherine pleading to God for Henry's sake. All I know is that the drummer goes absolutely insane half way through the song, to a point where the drumming even drowns out the vocals, but it doesn't bother me just because of how amazing this drumming is.
Then there is finally the 12 minute closer "Basketball Shoes", which I believe will easily go down as one of the most mind-blowing songs you will hear this year. After an extended saxophone led intro, which brings back similar post-rock vibes, Isaac opens with a final reference of Concorde, this time mentioning how it destroys his house, and he can't seem to escape her even when he is physically alone from her. More than ever I can feel the extreme desperation in Isaac's lyrics, where here I feel like he borders between hopeless romantic and pitiful weirdo. I mean, the entire last section is taken up by his re-encountering of wet dreams he's had about Charli XCX, which is hilarious already, but the fact that he has since changed the lyrics for the album since that live performance to be about his band mate Charlie. Rewinding though, entering the track's second phase, this starts a lone horn motif, later accompanied by odd and complex string rhythms, before Isaac re-enters, starting the third phase. Here we get an overwhelming Lift Your Skinny Fists style blaring guitar crescendo before it seems like the track comes to a close, but that was only the beginning and this actually starts the fourth phase which easily puts any 3rd wave post-rock band to shame. The slow horn motif returns and when all the instruments join in, it is pure audio pleasure every time. Isaac cries of unfiltered despair, which I read as him finally coming to terms with this failed relationship which his vocal performance not only absolutely sells, but so does the entire band whose instrumental climaxes hit just as hard as the last every single time.
This was a bit of a bittersweet listen for me, because while Ants From Up There was an amazing listen that blew my mind the first time, and continues to blow my mind, it makes me so sad to hear that this is Isaac's final record with the band. I just hope this is not permanent and if it is, then this was one hell of a send off. While many ideas in rock music have become so stale, it is bands like Black Country, New Road that prove that you don't need to copy rock bands from 50 years ago and there are still so many original ideas in the genre left to be explored. It's albums like these that are used as points of reference in music and I think it will be a while until any band has quite the musical accomplishment that Black Country, New Road has here.
Favorite tracks: All of them!
Least favorite tracks: None of them!
|1||Intro / 100|
|2||Chaos Space Marine / 100|
|3||Concorde / 100|
|4||Bread Song / 100|
|5||Good Will Hunting / 100|
|6||Haldern / 100|
|7||Mark’s Theme / 100|
|8||The Place Where He Inserted the Blade / 100|
|9||Snow Globes / 100|
|10||Basketball Shoes / 100|