Few bands have generated the palpable anticipation in the way Black Country, New Road has after just one release. In 2021, their debut album For the first time crowded end-of-year lists everywhere, branded as something so fresh and authentic that one just had to check it out for themselves to understand. Fast-forward a year or so later and the London-based group have dropped their sophomore album, Ants From Up There, just days after lead-vocalist Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band.
While Wood's departure could have cast somewhat of a shadow on the new LP, the close-knit group reinforced their love for each other in a statement, and with Wood citing mental health reasons as the basis for his withdrawal from the band, it seems like it is the best move for the now six-piece as the band will continue to make music going forward. The band features Lewis Evans on saxophone, May Kershaw on keys, Charlie Wayne on drums, Luke Mark on guitar, Tyler Hyde on bass, and Georgia Ellery on violin. Wood, however, is still very much present on what will be his final release with Black Country, New Road.
Ants From Up There, released via Ninja Tune, the same label that houses such artists as Little Dragon, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Thundercat among others, begins with the aptly named "Intro," which sets the general tone and establishes the motif instrumentally for the entire album.
Track two, the de facto track one, "Chaos Space Marine" crashes into existence with grand, whimsical violins and a theatrical piano line building into an Arcade Fire type of eruption. Being that was their first single released from the album, it is fitting that Wood called it the best song they have ever written.
Lyrically, Wood has always been poetic in nature but it is his ability to bring abstract, pop culture-dipped references to life such as shouting out Billie Eilish, "Bound 2" and Charli XCX throughout the album.
"Concorde" begins tenderly and comes in waves – providing some of the softer vocals you are going to hear from Wood which resolve into folksy guitar lines, wonderfully arranged and crescendoed. Spanish-influenced fingerpicking guitar and Hyde's bass recalibrate in an interlude of sorts as Wood's genuine vocals plead into a crashing finale.
"Bread Song" opens in Radiohead's In Rainbows type fashion and reveals some of the most emotional lines on the album, once again delivered softly. Saxophone and violin enter, giving a feeling of a certain significance that make Wood singing of crumbs being found in bed seem immense. "Bread Song" has the charm and feeling of being an immediate classic, a clear standout on the album.“We wanted to do the first chorus with no time signature,” Wood explains. “I went to see Steve Reich do 'Music for 18 Musicians' and there's a piece where a bar length is determined by the breadth of the clarinet player, they just play until they run out of breath. I wanted to try that with the whole band, where we don't look at each other, we don't make too many cues, we just try and play without time – but together.”
What changed the most for the group on their second album was controlling the chaos that they create so masterfully, such as "Goodwill Hunting," as it emphasizing the tastefully tumultuous nature seen across the ten tracks while also being intentional in not sounding like they have compromised any of the unconventional ideas that made them what they are today. That kind of uncompromising creativity is evident on "Haldern" as it was written out of an impromptu jam at Haldern Pop Festival in Germany, evolving into a haunting beginning with keys, saxophone and light strumming falling helplessly into Wood's spoken word vocals.
Inspired by Bob Dylan but again parallel to Arcade Fire's grandiose complexion, "The Place Where He Inserted the Blade" integrates those whimsical elements while replicating that epic sound. A mandate of Black Country, New Road is that making music accessible doesn't mean making it disinteresting. In fact, methodically crafting intricate pieces of the puzzle that can be (somewhat) easily digested is something that fuels them. “We are slowly trying to make our music really accessible,” says Evans. “You don't need to make weird sounding music to make weird music. There's not much in alternative music that is digestible and accessible while still being quite strange. Whereas you get a lot of that in pop music, a lot of artists make really weird music when you pick it apart but it still just sounds like perfect pop. We really liked the idea of doing that.”
"Snow Globes," an unconventionally long nine-minute single, is anything but irregular to the band that scored them a Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2021, eventually falling short to Arlo Parks. Supplying the most impressive drumming on the album, the entire song is an elongated build up that with breaks supplemented by swaying violins, gives way to why they can be dubbed a fusion of post-punk and folk.
Arriving at the final and longest track comes "Basketball Shoes," a three-part song spread over twelve minutes that has already become a favourite at live shows. The returning motif from "Intro" and lyrics from "Concorde" provide unity as "Basketball Shoes" shifts between delicacy and enormity. “It's the whole basis and blueprint for the album,” says Wood.
Though Wood's sudden departure raises question marks about what direction they will head next, Ants From Up There will cement itself as a grasp for significance and a successful one at that.
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