“If we could get as big as it could be possible for a band like us to be big, then that would be good. The Next Arcade Fire, that’s the goal.”
We live in a world where, at any moment, everything could be instantaneously ripped away from you. Whether this is a position in power or a small job as an intern, whether it's the simplest mistake or the result of pressure building up over a prolonged period of time, this is something that is bound to happen for some. Black Country, New Road are a band that experienced this first hand. When they initially formed under the pseudonym of Nervous Condition back in 2018, one of the band’s members was accused of sexual misconduct, leading to its demise. We’re fortunate that, merely a year later in January 2019, most of the band’s members reunited to form Black Country, New Road. Even if the allegations placed upon Connor Browne were justification for his resignation from the band, the entire band shouldn't have faced the consequences too, unknowing of the horrors Connor committed. The truth is, it’s a cruel, dark world out there where the bad overpowers the good at most times.
That’s black country.
I remember first discovering the band on a whim via Youtube recommendations in early 2020. I saw the thumbnail to their song “Sunglasses”, thought “Hey, that thumbnail looks pretty cool”. I clicked on the video and 8 minutes later, I was completely enamored. Keep in mind; this was at a time where my musical taste was primarily restricted to hip-hop. It sounded like nothing I had heard before. All eyes were on Black Country, New Road and Ninja Tune to bring an experience unlike any other. Being embroiled amid the hype that surrounded this album, eagerly reading form posts, stopping everything I was doing to go and listen to any new single that dropped, binging live shows and observing the pure, unparalleled passion that went into every word Isaac would say; it was thrilling to say the least. So here I sit, hunched over in my seat, writing to proclaim to you: They did it. They lived up to the hype.
Stomach-churning, jaw-clenching, and spine-chilling, Isaac Wood sounds like he’s on the verge of having a panic attack while he delivers his cryptic line. His raspy yet unhinged tone remains one of modern rock’s most unique voices. This vocal-style gels exquisitely with the monstrous and eclectic instrumental soundscape, never ceasing to impress me with the mind-melting jazz-rock fusions that take place here. I feel my praise for Isaac will overshadow the other band members, so I’d like to commend Lewis Evans and Georgia Ellery for their work with the violins and saxophone, respectively. Almost-human saxophones, with their horrifying tenor screams, sit aside cacophonous violins to up the album’s intensity. It’s music so intense and fierce that you can’t let go of the chair-arms you are gripping in suspense. Lengthy tracks will use their near-nonexistent song-structure to build up each bewildering behemoth to an apex of unfiltered emotion. This album is harrowing in every sense of the word, showing a clear-cut method behind the madness. The madness being the improvisational saxophone solos, manic freakouts, and instrumental chaos scattered across this album, all subjects I will cover in-depth later on in this review.
The most apparent and surface-level influence displayed by Black Country is Slint, a parallel the band themself draws on the track “Science Fair”. While Slint is most certainly a huge factor at play when determining Black Country’s identity, the band is much more: David Bowie’s “Blackstar” in its cinematic fusion of jazz and rock, Xiu Xiu with its frantic vocals, Swans with their gargantuan track sizes that never fail to keep you on your toes, waiting for whatever the band will throw your way next, even fellow label contemporaries, most notably Squid and black midi, with how they twist the fundamentals of experimental rock to their liking. The band never seems to drown in these influences, grasping both what makes bands similar to them work so well and a sound uniquely them. If my description of the album has made you hard, just imagine how big your boner will be while listening to the album itself.
I don’t typically tend to dabble in track-by-track reviews, but a 10/10 is a rare occurrence, so I don’t see why not for this release specifically.
The aptly titled “Instrumental” opener builds up suspense better than it has any right to seeing that it’s merely a vocal-less, purely instrument-driven cut. Kicking off with flickering keys and ritualistic drums, a distant yet beautifully textured guitar-line pops in around the one-minute mark. While the song does spend its whole time building up to its climactic finish, it ends with a whirlpool of intensity that makes the entire time you spent with the track prior worth the wait, sounding like a triumphant ride into battle on horseback, gazing directly at your foe with no fear in your eyes.
“Athens, France”, on the other hand, is a sunnier and more gorgeous track despite what its opening instrumental passage may lead you to believe. While it begins as a fast-paced, high magnitude, and vocally idiosyncratic experimental rock track, it quickly spirals into a lane that is more understated than most of the album’s other songs. It is also, notably, the most post-punk influenced song across the entire album, taking heavy inspiration from the sound of Protomartyr. However, despite its meditative sound, it still carries off-kilter energy and emotional potency, as showcases Isaac's sexual fears and reflects on the actions that led to Nervous Condition's downfall, to keep it engaging and uniquely BC, NR. It's the type of song that you close your eyes to and let the mood of it completely consume you.
An enigmatic aura is carried through “Science Fair”, a song that continues the album's shtick of building instrumentals up and then crashing them down into a thousand pieces. Its peculiar lyrics about the band performing a dead-end job at a science fair are partnered with claustrophobic instrumentation that is constantly building the tension to the song’s maelstrom of an outro- the five-minute culmination of build-up only leads to pure, unsullied chaos. It is an utterly overpowering ending to the track, one that is the earnest result of slowly adding more suspense-building instruments and a slow, meticulous rise of rage in Isaac Wood’s distraught and passionate vocals. It's the sound of a meteor hitting the Earth. The collapsing buildings, the world set ablaze, the people frantically running in an attempt to find a solution to their inescapable predicament. Once again, absolute chaos. It is for this reason that Isaac's simple proclamations of "It's black country out there", stated in a demanding, frantic tone, hit you like a truck.
If we are to make a one-to-one comparison to Slint, then “Sunglasses” is Black Country’s “Breadcrumb Trail”. It is one-half fear and the other insecure, falsified confidence and egoism as Isaac proclaims he is hidden behind his figurative sunglasses from the world’s woes and critiques of him. I won’t lie, when I first heard this new version, I was a bit on the fence about it. The original “Sunglasses” was one of my favorite songs of the last decade, so this updated-version, which many believe is inferior to the original, would obviously not immediately appeal to me. It took a minute for me to warm up to this new sound, but once I did, it became clear what the band was going for. In comparison to the original “Sunglasses”, this song is a deconstruction of Isaac’s grief and emotions rather than a maniac killer yelling at you with a loaded gun pointing towards your head. Isaac’s vocals are much more woozy, psychedelic, raw, spontaneous, off the cuff, and grief-stricken than they were in the original “Sunglasses”. The instrumentation is just as in-the-moment and demented as the vocals, creating an emotional trainwreck of a song that sounds freakish and has a lack of self-confidence masqueraded by a wall of noisy, pummeling instrumentation. It leads to a climax so explosive that it should be illegal. “Sunglasses” feels like a last-ditched cry for help from Isaac. So, is the new version a trainwreck? Yes, but it’s a damn beautiful trainwreck at that. I beg Black Country, New Road fans to imagine this new version- and the new version of Athens, France- as unique pieces, separating them from what they could have been and distancing them from their single counterparts. If you do so, you’ll surely find two passionate and compelling cuts that can compare to the originals.
So there I am, sitting in my chair and hearing the chaos ensue. The calamity unleashed through the mind-warping instrumentation and manic vocals go hand and hand to create an experience unlike any other. Pure. Fuckin. Rage.
...Which is why it’s all the more beautiful when the slow-burner that is “Track X” comes on. A cerebral, heartfelt love song from the same band who brought you “Sunglasses” and “Science Fair”. Hypotonic and immediately entrancing beauty comes in the form of a stark guitar melody, one that was meant to pay tribute to the great Arthur Russell. Isaac personally said that the song's main riff was written while listening to Arthur Russell’s classic “World of Echo” and was revived years later for this song in specific. Brevity is key with "Track X" as it is notably the shortest track on the album by a landslide. It is a brief, inviting piece of music that gives you a moment to reflect between the two psychotic ragers that it is squashed between, though never overstaying its welcome. It is a touching, moving, and tear-jerkingly alluring song that damn-near brought me to tears hearing in the context of the album. It was the moment where I truly realized I was listening to Black Country, New Road’s debut after so many long months.
Then comes the closer, “Opus”, possibly the album’s most grandiose moment, as the title would suggest. An 8-minute behemoth, it begins with a crescendo of saxophones, only to segue into a slick, uncompromising guitar-line. It isn’t until a flurry of pivoting saxophones and violins rush the listener's speakers that the track really heats up, taking heavy influence from Klezmer music. The ensemble of instruments leads to a moment where the track switches- everything calms down. This is the point where Isaac appears. Singing his heart out, the production begins to build-up once again as Isaac mocks classic Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Once the herd of violins and saxophones come back, they crush you in a stampede of chaotic and eccentric bliss. Black Country, New Road have a tendency to build up a song, only to have it crash down into one singular muted riff. Then, they start to reconstruct the track they have just torn down by slowly adding more instruments on top of each other. This song is that formula down to a tee, executed perfectly. The album's perfect ending comes in the form of yet another orgasmic instrumental vortex, the vigorous sound of organized instrumental pandemonium.
I feel like I should also acknowledge the abundance of references scattered across this record which may off-put some people that see it as a gimmick. I interpret them as critiquing society itself, an idea that persistently appears across the entire album. Focusing on the references, they are made to critique society's infatuation with celebrities. When you hear Slint be name-dropped by Isaac you go “WOOOAH SLINT!!!!” rather than focus on what Isaac is saying with the line or what the music itself sounds like. It is a satirization of the Internet Age the band was born out of.
So, just because I gave it a 100, does that mean I think it’s perfect? No, but imperfections are what make it so good. So relatable. So human. “For the First Time” is the type of album that bands take years- decades even- to create, but Black Country, New Road has done this with their debut album. This is an all-encompassing album experience unlike any other, gripping you by the chest, smashing you against a wall one hundred times, and then burning the house down with you in it. A faint moment of self-reflection for a band who are just getting started, a loving reflection of their self-hating tendencies and worst attributes. Quite possibly the greatest debut album ever made. What we are witnessing is more than the birth of the world's "second-best Slint-tribute act", this is the type of album people look back at decades down the line and think “That’s a masterpiece.” I’d like to leave this review with a message. Despite how cruel and harsh the world can be, you can be anything, do anything, or act any way you want. Just remember…
“It’s black country out there.”
Favorite Tracks: Instrumental, Athens France, Science Fair, Sunglasses, Track X, Opus
Worst Track: Bruh