Photo Credit: Rosie Foster
No other group today makes music quite like Black Country, New Road. Their aptly titled 2021 debut For the First Time is one of the most ambitious debuts ever released; a freewheeling, ferocious record that incorporated klezmer music and jazz fusion alongside post-punk and art-rock. Isaac Wood’s frenzied deliveries and weird poetry soon gave the seven-piece Cambridge-rooted band a devoted cult following and they were praised worldwide as one of the most promising new groups.
On Ants from Up There, released on the date exactly one year after its predecessor, Black Country, New Road have sharpened up just enough, presenting a less chaotic but nevertheless intense sound teased already on “Track X” from their last record. The two albums share several components. Just like For the First Time, the new album opens with an instrumental track, launching the album with fanfares before the first real track, “Chaos Space Marine”, which instantly shows their development.
On For the First Time, Isaac Wood often took the roles of various characters or references from popular culture such as Fonz from the 1980s TV Show Happy Days, to express his feelings. On this track, he’s taking the role as one of the characters in the miniature wargame Warhammer 40k quoted as, “former Space Marines of the imperium of men who have chosen to abandon the service of the Emperor of Mankind and dedicate themselves to chaos to achieve their own ends,” escaping a failed relationship by dedicating his body to the game. It’s the most upbeat and plainly fun song on the record, as it deals with progressive changes in tempo and loudness in a playfully vivid way.
Already on the first track, we’re introduced to the Concorde as an ongoing reference leaping over the album, and on the next one – “Concorde” – we’re getting an explanation through one of the record’s stand-out tracks. “And you, like Concorde // I, came, a gentle hill racer // I was breathless upon every mountain // Just to look for your light.” The Concorde project was a British-French turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that gave rise to the “Concorde Fallacy”-syndrome, a metaphor for when humans defend an investment even though it’s more costly than just letting it go. Over a restrained and down-beat yet decisively climbing musical setting, Isaac paints this beautiful metaphor over what is probably their most beautiful song yet. It’s that rare song that manages to be both vulnerable, almost frail, and unbreakably vigorous at the same time. After the memorable “Bread Song” where Isaac has something important to say about something as relatable as pieces of bread in the bed, we’re once again introduced to the airship as a reference on “Good Will Hunting”, its title taken from the Robin Williams and Matt Damon-starring 1997 drama with the same name. It’s perhaps the most straightforward rock song here, with its punchy drums and infectious guitar lines placing them closer to post-punk than they’ve ever been before.
Four more tracks compared to their debut have increased the tracklist to ten songs instead of the debut’s six, but they’re not shorter – rather the opposite. Five of them reach beyond the six-minute mark, and if the first side is relatively accessible and commercially arranged, the second side is where die-hard avant-garde fans will gather. The concluding three-song streak is all endless seven-minute-plus giants that demand your full attention and curiosity. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” is a growing, almost bluesy masterpiece once again about clinging on to a relationship you just can’t see yourself letting go of (“Every time I try to make lunch // For anyone else, in my head // I end up dreaming of you”). The nine-minute “Snow Globe” is the messiest song of the album, but it works wonderfully as a transition to the bombastic 12-minute opus “Basketball Shoes”, ending the record as a three-part rock opera composition.
With Isaac Wood’s departure from the group due to mental illness, being declared only days before the release of the album, the future of the band is unclear. Although all members of Black Country, New Road should get praise for their contributions to every aspect of this remarkable album, Isaac’s obsessive expositions and captivating performances are what truly sets them apart from any other group I am aware of right now. Let’s just hope that this brilliant, intelligent, and incredibly talented 23-year-old wordsmith gets well soon because I am sure he’s got plenty more to tell us about Space Marines, traversing the Milky Way, and wet dreams about Charli XCX.