Album Review: Black Country, New Road – For The First Time (Ninja Tune)
It’s early last year, and Georgia Ellery, violinist of Black Country, New Road tells me something along the lines of: “you gotta watch this Mark Jenkin film called Bait”. 5 minutes of B&W, 16mm film in, I was surprised to see Ellery herself casually walking onto Jenkin’s set for her acting debut. I know musicians appear in films all the time, but when they do it’s rarely before their debut album. This perfectly embodies how I feel about this band breaking career conventions. Travelling smoothly on the road to become trailblazers.
Upon first seeing the septet live, It was as if they had invisible wings or something. They could afford to reach the sky. Defeating the clouds of musical ambition, while somehow still procuring multiple side projects along the way. All of Jockstrap (Georgia Ellery), Ugly (Charlie Wayne), The Guest (Isaac Wood) and Good With Parents (Lewis Evans) come from this band, and all were formed in a time when they were students. With all this put in mind, it’s no surprise 2020 came to see a fiery bidding war between labels to sign the group. Following BCNR’s electrifying live shows where young minds would murmur questions like: ‘are Black Country, New Road the best band in the world?’, how the hell can a debut album hold up? well…evidently pretty damn well.
Conjuring up images of an Aztec human sacrifice or Mediterranean rave scene, ‘For The First Time’ opens as inspiringly as a debut album could hope. Wayne carries the number (Inventively titled ‘Instrumental’) on his back in a Paleolithic drum solo, giving off airs not very subtlely. It’s wonderful, solidifying once again that BCNR are a drum centric band. It’s not mentioned nearly often enough in my opinion. If you see this group live, you’ll notice Wayne lugs two snare drums on stage with him to differentiate timbres on one song alone (Sunglasses), and here his formulae is no different. Heavily favouring the often forgotten tom drums. As the track builds, it centres itself around a childish, almost ‘outsider music’ genred synth (that shouldn’t work but does. hauntingly dominating the track), slinking guitars and a menacing sax/violin refrain that starts to dip it’s feet in and out of the mix, before creating Klezmer influenced chaos. This part alone is like a badass theme song for the group that should play every time they walk into a room. What’s so fascinating here is that ‘Instrumental’ remains one of the simplest of the bands cuts, yet it’s somehow one of their most daring. BCNR manage to build the track to new heights with volume control solely, bringing in awe inspiring moods of anxious claustrophobia.
Alike to the ‘Instrumental’, the following numbers continue in the same pallet. Though accelerating the speed x10 on anxiety. Starting with the rejigged, and now very modernist ‘Athen’s, France’, where the lyrics play out like a screenplay to the scorched remains of (Isaac) Wood’s personal, paranoid diaries, which he tired to burn religiously in a bonfire. Instrumentally the numerous musical excursions are as labyrinthian as on the 2018 recording. The time signature changeup from a 4/4 post punk number to a 3/4 waltz is refreshing, redefining how a rock song should be structured. The last minute is musical therapy. Like 2021’s fully orchestrated version of ‘The Big Ship’ by Brian Eno.
Next is the frigid ‘Science Fair’. Lyrically a free form monologue, rallying into the dark undercurrents of lust and desperation. There’s one point in the second leg that I especially love, where Wood’s narcissism gets the best of him, and he is convinced he has made it with a circus performer from an imagined crowd gaze, before realizing he’s having a Antoine Roquentin like moment of self awareness. Thus he moans existentially: ‘I was just one among crowded stands’. His recital is like the smoke coming out of a pipe, embodying confidently the feeling of being so small that nothing else matters. Instrumentally the cut is brimmed with false build ups and shots of no wave noise, shadowing art records from The Velvet Underground and The Contortions in their taut impromptus. What really puts the icing on the cake is how BCNR seamlessly merge genres. The unexpected post rock climax is unmissable. So epic in delivery that it is capable of opening pandoras box. A white heat of guitars emerge out of nowhere. The band subsequently solo off eccentrically. Slapping the listener in the face, only in the way a pioneer like Glenn Branca could.
In it’s latest reincarnation. Sunglasses, the 4th track on the album, is at this rate more like a symphony than a rock song. The way Marquee Moon is to Television or Bohemian Rhapsody to Queen. To support this ‘backbone of the album’ statement, just look at early live performances. When played In Manchester’s Yes, Ellery lost her vape pen, which somehow fell from her receipt jammed violin case as audience members crashed frenziedly into the stage. The number saws through a musical globe. From a shoegazey passage drowned in washed out pedal noise, to a math rock leaden spoken word piece, to a free jazz musical traffic jam, to a crisp post punk eccentric breakdown, it has it all. The lyrics are delivered in sharp, iambic prose. Depicting what sounds like the anxieties Wood has in a relationship with a girl of a higher class. Stream of concious lyrics fly past about how her family’s lives are distorted to look perfect, being in with all the newest technological advancements. He later reflects in horror that their traits are rubbing off on him. The idea can be played around with that someone living in the 21st century can try and detach themselves from the technological world, but somehow they will always fail. It is everywhere. It is ‘the absoloute pinnacle of british engineering‘ as Wood states on this track. As the track progresses, Wood’s delivery and lyrics become more narcotic. Also instrumentally threatening violence by the minute, and proving to be the musical equivalent of a Black Mirror episode. By the end, Wood sounds tormented by demons. He starts ranting about what sounds like his lack of adequacy (psychosomatically) to the girl in question, because he’s turned out to be a fake version of himself and therefore a disappointment. An embodiment of the bands name in a sense, which is supposed to suggest a good way out of a bad place (or here a kind of Nietzscheian attempt at it).
With all the insanity this record has to offer, it is easy to forget that the band are more than capable of producing quite beautiful instrumental passages. In a highlight moment on ‘Athen’s, France’, Ellery’s Violin tiptoes around May’s spacey synthesisers and Mark’s guitars (both sounding as if they’re underwater), channeling influences from minimalism and classical music. Another one to mention is Track X. The calm before the storm of Opus, presenting a musical cross currents, recycling and reversing the riff of Sunglasses. Alike to a minimalist piece by Steve Reich, it is utopian and detailed in imagery. Each musical pattern is a crossroad, each looking as desirable as the next to go down. Both grandiose moments of unpredictable time signatures. The latter having no percussion, yet still remaining consistantly in a 3/4 swing.
In a grand moment of finality, ‘Opus’ is like the final nail in a well built and structured coffin. Warned from the title alone, this number sounds like a histrionic obituary to something or someone. When comparing old and new lyrics, I imagine it’s about the demise of the band they formed out of (Nervous Conditions). One that ended in sexual assault allegations from a now absent member and is likely a hard subject to write about. In true BCNR style, it’s lyrics are hidden in personal allegories highlighting the absurd, so I could be completely wrong. All I can tell is that it is the death of something. Sonically this is all over the shop (in a complimentary way). The violin and sax refrains that lead are practically crying on the cut, while the bassline and guitars and running, trying to escape it’s death trap. May’s synth work laughs atop of it. Sounding as menacing as circus music as the track builds into it’s high energy tempos. I love the theatrical close too. There’s this dramatic refrain about being ‘late to the party’. To me this ties up every lyrical situation of doubt in the last 4 tracks, and Wood’s annoyance that he was the last to notice things weren’t right. He uses this moment to let out his demons. He bellows out into a tormented mind suicide of roars, oppressing his listener. Subsequently cutting off their oxygen supply as the track gives way on itself and ends the LP.
With a cover that looks like a Huel advertisement, ‘For The First Time’ is a representation of modern culture through a lens. Completed with references to Phoebe Bridges, the artists on The Windmill’s roaster, Isaac’s dog Dylan, the band Slint, Kanye West, bluetooth speakers and TV shows like ‘Happy Days’, It’s the kind of record that kids will pick out from dusty crates in antique fairs, pull apart lyrically and think ‘This was 2021’. They’ll subsequently shout at their parents for not having seen the band in their prime. Bloody brilliant.
Key Tracks: Instrumental, Science Fair, Sunglasses, Opus
For The First Time is released via Ninja Tune Records on Friday Feb 5.