*Lifts teacup and extends pinky* twas rather splendid, Henry. Splendid indeed.
EDIT (1) Through reading the various criticisms levelled at the writing of this album pertaining to the “melodramatic” lyrics, I came to the realisation that I didn’t really dig all that deeply into the lyrical themes of this record. Simply put, Chaos Space Marine isn’t a track about Warhammer. Bread Song is not a song about Bread. Concorde is not a song about a British Supersonic airliner. Snow Globes isn’t about a Snow Globes’ inability to shake on its own. The wizardry behind Isaac Wood’s writing lies in his eccentric use of Similes, metaphors and symbolism, which he uses to tell a layered, relatable story. When Isaac emotionally croons about breadcrumbs over the bed sheets, he’s not literally upset over breadcrumbs over bedsheets, it’s rather the implications behind this seemingly trivial observation. If you’re someone who didn’t grasp the lyrical themes of this record and felt Ants From Up There was overly dramatic, or If you just want a deep lyrical analysis, I suggest reading this review right here: https://www.albumoftheyear.org/user/ursusmaritimus/album/424961-ants-from-up-there/
Anyway, on with my original review!
What was the last Rock Record that felt like this much of a game changer?
To comment on the above question, likely over a decade. Many music fans have made the unfortunate deduction that Rock music has slowly been declining in significance since the 90s, with Rock mostly taking a back seat in the 2010s to allow Electronic Dance Music acts and Hip Hop artists to take the lead. Whilst this is in no way an atrocious reality to live in, I’ve always wondered what the next major step in Rock music would sound like. Not to undermine bands like Radiohead and Swans, who’ve been spending their careers pushing the boundaries of what Rock can be; nor to enfeeble the various metal and punk acts that have been carrying the proverbial torches of their respective genres, but Rock had been directionless for a while. Stagnating and splintering, Rock music has lacked focus for years, or to take that a step further, a sense of identity.
The schema for modern rock mostly consists of thunderously mediocre names such as Imagine Dragons and Foo Fighters, band that certainly don’t qualify for a placement in the Rock and Roll hall of fame. Even more pathetically, attempts to apply a defibrillator shock to the corpse of Rock, to return to an age of “100% pUrE uNcUt rOcK” has emerged from the rancid ravine of modern Green Day. Releasing Father of all… in 2020, the band somehow irritatingly educed a sentiment of ambivalence towards rock, embarrassingly construing the genre as an archaic musical archetype that should be drowned under the tides of time.
Before Black Country New Road, the closest we came to a major breakthrough in Rock was Black Midi, but even then Black Midi felt more like a scrapbook of sounds patched together out of different pages of rock history rather than a focussed attempt to take the genre forward - in other words, Black Midi are the archetypal “experimental rock” band, much like Swans. However, Black Midi’s Schlagenheim was the discordant, gnarled hand emerging out of the rancid swamp of mediocrity that rock music needed to drag itself out of it’s depressing grave, showing that Rock could still be interesting. And let’s not forget, Cavalcade last year was stellar.
However, upon the release of For the First Time in February last year, Black Country New Road irrefutably reaped Black Midi of their spotlight, presenting us with a confident debut from a seven-piece band that had a transparent, well defined artistic vision. Taking heavy inspiration from Slint’s Spiderland, For the First Time’s arachnid styled time signatures and Isaac Wood’s anxiously sporadic spoken word delivery, with some jazz influences thrown in for good measure, served a tasteful and refreshing rock debut. Whilst not entirely original, Black Country New Road’s firm grasp on songwriting, sturdy production and musicianship illustrated that there was hope for Rock music. For the First time sounded very much like a modern Slint record, with a distinct Britishness to their musical approach that catapulted them to the collective admiration of online music communities.
However, there was still promise that needed to be fulfilled. Afterall, the band themselves disowned their own debut, claiming to be dissatisfied with the end result despite it being called one of the best records of 2021. Subtly, the band told us they had much more to offer. This excited me, as I loved For the First Time when it came out and couldn’t wait for a follow up. And just a few months later, Black Country New Road rolled into a new album cycle for their sophomore release. Dropping some of the greatest songs of the decade with Chaos Space Marine, Bread Song, Concorde and Snow Globes, Black Country New Road portrayed a staggering amount of artistic growth within a woefully short time frame. To put it another way, Black Country New Road was shedding their Slint influences completely, like Black Country New Road’s debut was merely the metamorphic beginning, having Ants From Up There emerge. Indeed, if Spiderland was the ugly caterpillar, and For the First Time was that caterpillar enveloped in a cocoon, Ants From Up There is the exquisite butterfly flaunting it’s dazzling wings and flying off into a violin string sunset.
There is something almost instinctual about Ants From Up There, almost akin to a natural phenomenon like the formation of clouds, or the elegant maestroso of nature. Like there was something inevitable about Black Country New Road’s sophomore release, like the idea it presents were staring us in the face the whole time and it took these geniuses to envision it.
Intro serves a taste of this Candescent Gild, demurring the notion of Black Country New Road’s success being a limited one. A minute in length, The intro to Ants from up there is nothing abstruse, and yet somehow the band members manage to evince a classical cognizance with a mere silvery sheen of violin. It familiarises us with the upcoming instrumental textures, easing us into the real opening song “Chaos Space Marine”, which was our first single and consequently the first taste of Ants from up there we received. From the schizoid violins to the sporadic horns, to the gratifying drum hits, the beginning of the song has a filigree to it’s instrumentation reminiscent of Victorian embroidery, evoking Arcade Fire in it’s application of Chamber music. Isaac Woods delivery here, and everywhere else on Ants from up there, differs greatly from anything on For the First time; whilst on For the First time, Wood’s performance felt like a frenzied rapture that tore through the guitars. Here, his trepidation and yodelling persists, but with a refinement to his poetic spoken word craft - instead of delivering his lyrics erratically, Isaac opts for a more delicate, burgeoning approach. The gradual ascension of these song’s intensity is akin to a rolling snowball, racing down a pale hill and increasing in mass and turbulence, until crashing in the most grandiose display. With that being said, Chaos Space Marine clocks in at three minutes, acting as the most immediately stimulating track of the bunch. However, once the song hits it’s crescendo at two minutes in, Isaac erupts into La Dispute-esque delivery, emotionally discharging completely. Whilst Emo can feel cheap in it’s tendency to revolve around screamo, here it feels like an earned, cathartic release.
After the explosive ending to Chaos Space Marine, the hushed guitars at the beginning of Concorde are a perfect change of pace. Like many of the tracks here, the instrumentation behind waylay and patient, taking it’s time to slowly creep up on you. The light drum hits and modest bass ease is perfectly into Isaac’s fastidiously descriptive lyrics that detail heartbreak, nostalgia and ostracisation unflinchingly. Chamber pop, Jazz, Emo, Spoken word, and gentle rock influences guide the song’s complete exploration of the Isaac’s soul. It’s meditative, rising and falling like the emotional highs and lows of human life, before swan-diving tragically into the depths of grandiloquent ruin right at the end. Being placed after Chaos Space Marine, a song boasting an optimistic kind of felicity, Concorde is completely devastating.
Thankfully, Bread Song’s lofty, tonally rich and ringing guitar melodies, paired with it’s gradual built allows us to recover. The beautiful melodies are much akin to the slow builds present on songs on Swans’ The Glowing Man or To Be Kind, with the scintillating drum symbol hits and rising instrumentation capturing an almost transcendental experience. Isaac’s performance is very muted for the most part, quietly caressing the mix with his understated poetry. Once the tempo shifts at around the three minute mark thanks to the rhythmic drum sticks ticks and eventual, rapid symbol taps, the volume slowly increases into a loud, satisfying finish. The sound palette of Bread Song helps to capture a feeling of drifting apart from something, perhaps trying to continue with life whilst it echoes in your mind. Potentially, Bread song could be reeling from a loss present at the end of Concorde, which may be why the first four tracks (intro, Chaos Space Marine, Concorde and Bread Song) flow so perfectly. In terms of its emotional continuity, the biggest compliment I can give to Ants From Up There is how it shares this quality with Ok Computer. Like Radiohead’s classic album, the track listing is flawlessly orchestrated.
Moving into the weakest third of the tracklisting (oh and don’t worry, it’s still gold), we get Good Will Hunting, an effulgently groovy deep cut that’s faster to bloom than every track here but feels no less colourful. The corpulent drum hits make this a head bop worthy banger, filled with evanescent backing vocals and ineffable yodels from Isaac that crack and creak like a quaint cabin. However, Good Will Hunting, despite it’s shorter run time than most of the tracks here, manages to somehow feel even more eruptive than the previous tracks. That’s what mollifies Ants From Up There more than anything; it dares to ascend, dares to become more and more intense as it progresses. From every song here and especially Good Will Hunting, it feels like Black Country New Road is deriving every morsel of pleasure they can coincidence, relishing every chord, every note, every moment. Shining through the performances is a rare, sincere kind of love, and all that love manifests into something that feels like a celebration of music as a whole.
Rolling into Haldern, a song is quietly strummed guitars and tranquil piano melodies, in conjunction with Isaac’s dejected, confessional lyrics that bleed a sacred kind of expression, we reach the saddest part of Ants From Up There. The violins sound busier and richer than ever, extracting all the flavour they can with each flickering strum. Paired with the roaring drums, the song manages to waver between a state of abeyance and a state of cathartic release, to such a sense that tension is mounted as quickly as it is released. The way the piano notes and violins upthrust and soar serves to elevate the tension to an unbearable degree, closing off the first half of this project like a cliffhanger.
If Haldern’s ending felt like a cliffhanger, then Mark’s Theme feels like the preview for what is to come; subtly swelling violin loops evoke the feelings of the intro track, but to an even more potent extent. As Mark’s Theme is an interlude, there is little to say here. However, it’s inception was necessary endeavour, as it’s a tribute to a deceased family member of one of the band members. Conceptually, it eases the tension built by Haldern and sets up the colossal three part finish of Ants From Up There.
Now, at this point Black Country New Road would forgive you for thinking that all their best songs were behind them, after all the talent present so far has been impeccable. However, the band uses these last three songs to laugh in the face of realism, presenting without a doubt the record’s three best songs, and easily the three best songs in their entire discography. To elaborate, The Place Where He Inserted The Blade is yet another heart wrencher, juxtapositioning sugary piano melodies with a toilful pre chorus, before detonating into easily the most tortured chorus of the album. The manic delivery borrows a lot from Isaac’s vocal style on For the First Time, but with a lot more nuance. If any song illustrates the night and day difference between the longer cuts on their debut like Science Fair and the songs on Ants From Up there, it’s this one. Before the exquisite cacophony of guitars however, is a tearful piano melody that sounds like the credits to a depressing cinematic experience. Structurally, despite being seven minutes long, it is the closest Ants from up there comes to having a conventional track, utilising a very distinct verse chorus verse formula. But as already described, the song is anything but.
Penultimately, Snow Globes was a song that I considered one of the weakest out of the four singles deployed to tease this record, but once I wrapped my head around the extensive runtime and garnered access to the album in it’s entirety, it quickly became one of my favourites. Snow Globes is the greatest track Black Country New Road could possibly have chosen to prelude the last song. Suddenly, the whirling drums and tortured chorus begin to make sense when you consider the bigger picture. “God of weather, Henry knows, Snow Globes don’t shake on their own” is one of the most memorable moments of the album, as amongst his delivery his voice is ensnared by a hurricane of drums that give the track a lifting sensation.
And finally, we have BasketBall Shoes, easily Black Country New Road’s best song so far and a climactic three part finish to this stellar project. In fact, this might be one of the finest songs of the last ten years. Intricate and forbearing Basketball Shoes ties every theme explored on the album; Heartbreak, Escapism, and triumph. Consisting of various pieces of music strung together into a twelve and a half minute epic, BasketBall Shoes manages to wrap every theme of the project up like Christmas wrapping paper, with the guitars and violins tearing it all off to reveal the conceptual heart of the project. Words simply fail to express how satisfying of an ending this song is, with how it contains various motifs through the project.
In conclusion, Ants From Up There is an instant classic. Usually when I listen to an album, I can find at least a few things that I don’t like, a few things I’d change, a handful of flaws. But Black Country New Road’s sophomore album is one of the exceptionally rare cases where I would not change a single lyric, a single vocal take, or a single chord. Everything here is written to a masterful level, so much so that Isaac Wood departing from the band is perhaps the biggest tragedy of the album. Time will tell whether or not the band will manage to push forward without this incredible vocalist, but either way this album is going to be a very difficult act to follow.