You know how I said that music in 2022 was not off to a great start a week ago? Okay, if God exists, this album is her apology.
The Windmill scene in Brixton, and post-punk as a whole, exploded last year, leading to a friendly competition of which band had the best album. I think most people would agree there were two standouts in particular, and while I certainly loved black midi’s album, for me, Black Country, New Road came out on top. The band’s jazzy, klezmer infused, post-rock debut, “For the first time”, was easily one of my favorite albums of last year, landing on Number 4 on my best album list, only being held back by a crowded year of fantastic projects and a few nitpicks. And I wasn’t the only one - the band has been receiving a lot of buzz since their first handful of singles, and their debut record quickly made them universally beloved critical darlings to everyone in the know. But even though the band had been teasing new material since even before their first album’s release, I think most people were caught off guard that their followup album, the one we’ll be discussing today, was coming so soon, not even a full year since their last project no less. It makes complete sense though - the band has basically never stopped writing, their buzz was ever increasing and would likely continue to do so when concert tours were in full gear, so why wouldn’t you want to strike while the iron is hot and ride the wave further upward? Black Country, New Road was already one of the most exciting young bands in rock, and their sophomore album, “Ants From Up There”, was promising to catapult them even higher.
But with all of this excitement and critical acclaim, it’s easy to forget that the band hasn’t had an easy trip getting here. Black Country, New Road was formed in the ashes of their former band, Nervous Conditions; an act that was also starting to gain some traction of their own until their lead singer was hit with multiple sexual assault allegations. That alone would be enough for most bands to dissolve, but with a group reshuffling and a name change, the now seven piece continued and marched onward - into a global pandemic. Live shows, the main way bands get any money nowadays and what the band themselves have said were a big tool for their writing process were dead for a whole year, and even as shows have started to open up there have been setbacks, like how many of these performances have had a limited audience or having dates cancelled due to the ever fluxing state of the world. Speaking of the pandemic, covid had also hit close to home when saxophone player Lewis Evans lost his uncle and huge fan of the band Mark to the virus. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, literal days before the release of “Ants From Up There”, lead singer, lyricist, and guitarist Isaac Wood has left the band due to unspecified reasons related to his mental health. Anyone who has heard them knows how big of a hole Isaac leaving would make, and even though I’m sure the group can persevere and is already promising new material, who knows what the future looks like going forward? Will someone take Isaac’s place, will the band go instrumental, will they play the music they created with Isaac live, hell, will they even keep being Black Country, New Road? Remember, they already were a completely different band, who's to say they won’t reform again - this could potentially be the last Black Country, New Road album. Needless to say, “Ants From Up There” is not only the result of what I can imagine was not an easy period for the band but also inadvertently serves as the end of an era. With all of that in mind, what does the final Issac Wood lead Black Country, New Road album look like?
Well, for one, “Ants From Up There” does not look like “For the first time”. Lyrically and sonically, this sounds like a very different Black Country, New Road, undergoing a decade long transformation in 364 days. I thought the band would follow the direction of tracks like “Science Fair”, “Sunglasses”, and “Opus” and just get crazier and crazier, but in hindsight, the quiet and lowkey breather “Track X” was more representative of where the band was looking towards. The chaotic, noisey, klezmer inspired post-rock that I think many would say defined the band’s sound takes a back seat to classically structured indie rock that builds to theatrical swells of melody. This sound is even more of a left hook when considering Isaac’s approach to vocals; Wood sings the entire album, and while singing isn’t new to him by any means, most of the first album revolved around his spoken word and manic rantings that sounded like an ever increasing anxiety attack. Here, however, Wood sounds like he’s letting free his most intense emotions, quietly and unsurely letting each word spill until it explodes from within him in a desperate attempt to let his lover know how he feels. That’s another thing which I’ll dive into a little more in a bit, while “From the first time” seemed to mostly center on the character’s deep insecurities and anxiety, “Ants From Up There” follows a loose narrative that sees an anxious character navigate a relationship that, from the very first track, seems like it’s going to fall apart. Now, to give some context, I wasn’t 100% sure I would love this move as the singles were dropping. They were all great, don’t get me wrong, but what I was most drawn to from Black Country, New Road’s debut were the crazy and chaotic bits. On top of that, with the singer of one of my favorite bands turning out to be a huge piece of shit, I kind of wanted to fill the gap of anxiety attack fueled manic rantings over intense music. So I wasn’t sure if all of that being dropped for a full hour of more conventional songwriting was going to resonate with me, at least in comparison to their last album.
But, my god, this album is the kind of greatness that’ll bring the band to legend status.
Where do I even begin? I guess I’ll start with the instrumentation, which is, for lack of a better word, fucking beautiful. It’s insanely beautiful. Obviously Black Country, New Road has proved themselves to be great players, but from a compositional standpoint each player comes together to form a sound that is at times pretty, nostalgic, intimate, larger than life, haunting, intense, and/or jaw dropping. On top of that, the seven piece have proved themselves to be the masters of pacing on this album, knowing just when to drop new ideas, when to change them, how to make them grow, until they reach their logical end point where they just explode into a release of pure emotion. Lots of artists these days can’t make songs longer than four minutes without losing steam; the twelve minute close on “Ants From Up There” passes by as easy as a three minute pop cut. And while the band works best as a unit, every member here gets to shine. Isaac Wood and Luke Mark’s guitar work add a melancholic yearning throughout, Tyler Hyde’s basswork is just as melodic as every other instrument, May Kershaw’s keys, which for me got kind of lost in the shuffle a good number of times on their debut, adds a dreamy atmosphere that makes the music sound like it’s from a distant memory, Charlie Wayne’s drumming is key to the band’s build in dynamics and really shines in the penultimate track “Snow Globes”, representing the sound of the world shaking. To me, Georgia Ellery and Lewis Evans, on violin and saxophone respectively, are often the highlight of the musical side on “Ants From Up There”, adding beautiful textures throughout and gorgeous toplines to the band’s infamous climaxes - they are often the “secret sauce”. I especially want to highlight the Lewis lead “Mark’s Theme”, serving as the perfect eulogy to his uncle I mentioned earlier, capturing every emotion that can’t be said with words. The music here is divine and is the first in a long time that I’ve really been captivated by an indie rock record, to such a great extent as well, and I think that speaks to how incredible Black Country, New Road are as writers.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Isaac Wood specifically. Isaac has always been a captivating lyricist and singer, but on “Ants From Up There” he really shines. I think the change in lyrical approach, the loose relationship concept, and his approach to singing allows him to be vulnerable in a way that we haven’t seen before, at least to this extent. And don’t worry, there’s still plenty of thought tangents and references to pop culture and modern living that shows Isaac’s wit, cleverness, humor, and relatability, but with this album we see much more of his heart. Many times Isaac sings like what he’s saying physically hurts to do, or that he’s ashamed of what he’s saying like he’s afraid of how the other person will respond, but just has to sing his heart out anyway because he’s so overwhelmed by emotion. As Wood explores the story of this relationship, he sings lines that are not only brilliantly clever in how he approaches them, but they are deeply human and relatable. Isaac uses the famous Concorde as a metaphor for how he is putting all of his effort and heart into making a relationship work, suffering through the process, just for the chance that it will persevere, which likely won’t happen. On “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”, Isaac uses the concept of a cooking tutorial to make lunch to represent how he feels lost and scared that he’ll mess everything up without his partner, and how he needs them to make him feel secure and that everything will be okay. Obviously that lyrical idea is funny, but the idea of getting overwhelmed by something that others see as small and clinging to your partner to get through it, especially something like cooking lunch, is also a brilliantly relatable and universal experience. Sometimes small things seem incredibly huge and daunting, and that leads to a bigger point about the album itself.
Love is a pretty universal emotion, it’s one that everyone feels and has had an emotional experience connected to it - that’s why most songs are written about it. But Black Country, New Road understand something specific about love, specifically young love and are able to translate it into their music that a lot of artists can’t do as well, and it’s that young love is fucking intense. Everything feels like the world is at stake when you’re young, love especially so. The great moments feel out of this world, the bad ones feel devastating. Your partner moving to Berlin for a little while and not texting back feels like endless pain. That’s why the music works so well, the huge, grand theatrically represents how the good times and the heartbreak feel when you’re going through it - it has to be larger than life because it feels that way. And that leads to the epic closer of this album, “Basketball Shoes”, which, at this point, is Black Country, New Road’s shining moment. A multi part closer with sax and violin swells, nostalgic guitar and keys, even a choir, and Isaac’s best lyrics to date that, and it just might be me, kind of reminds me of Morrissey. “I haven't felt this way in, like ever, I am the convo, you are the weather, And the clamp is a cracked smile cheek, And it tortures me” is the most Morrissey thing Morrissey never said, and that extends to the final lyric. As the rhythm section explodes, the choir joining the saxophone and the violin, Isaac cries out “All I’ve been forms the drone, we sing the rest, Oh, your generous loan to me, your crippling interest” I mean, fuck, that is one of the most heartbreaking and relatable lyrics I’ve read in a while. It’s an ending that gave me goosebumps and is truly transcendental, a closer that would make many great rock bands envious.
I said in my original review of “For the first time” that, despite its greatness, I still didn’t think Black Country, New Road made their masterpiece, but I did not expect that masterpiece to come in this form. But I’m not going to argue with it when it’s this obviously great. This album was actually kind of hard to write about, not because it was a challenge to describe or I couldn’t think of what to talk about, but because I didn’t really want to think about it at all. Most albums, good and bad, make me want want to put on my critic hat, analyze it, and start writing or talking about it with someone, but with this one I just want to soak in its magic. “Ants From Up There” is the kind of album that will remind music lovers of why they love music. It’s just filled with sweeping musical moments, fantastic instrumentation, stellar performances, personal but universal lyrics, a fantastic feeling of emotion that can only be captured by music. I’m not saying this is the greatest album ever or even the greatest album of the year (it is only February), but it’s great music in its most pure form. Black Country, New Road is probably not making music that could be reasonably compared to the rest of the modern post-punk scene anymore, but if you were going to, they easily just blew everyone out of the water. The future of the band is unclear, but I know they’ll bounce back, whether or not they keep their name. Of course I’m sad that Isaac is leaving, but obviously for the sake of his mental health I am more than happy he knew to bow out when he could, and I wish him the best moving forward. What a note to go out on. Whatever the future may hold, Black Country New Road should know that they created a masterpiece that many people are going to love and cherish in the form of “Ants From Up There”.