Album Review: Black Country, New Road – Ants From Up There (Ninja Tune)
In my head there is some debate as to whether Black Country, New Road are trying to channel comedy or tragedy more in their artistic direction. Maybe appearing on The Mercury Prize in swimming snorkels was a hint, but the kazoo solo buried in the mix on ‘Basketball Shoes’ is a confirmation. Ironically, this is Black Country, New Road’s best song yet, and is a perfect showcase of their insane talent.
Seemingly overnight, Black Country, New Road became a band who would become feared for being weighed down by their critically acclaimed debut. A decade defining record brim filled with truculent social commentary, atop of klezmer and post genre inspired experiments. However, the band weren’t as impressed as many of us were, recently admitting that they were already bored of the music and felt like it didn’t represent them anymore. Naturally, BCNR are now far removed from the small band playing tiny clubs with a cult following, and have morphed into one of the most talked about rising acts; so turning away from the zenith of promo opportunities, and putting everything behind them mid lockdown seemed like a healthy change of pace. They started work on something entirely new, trading pedal distortion for moments of silence, and cold blooded spoken word for the warmth of emotional vulnerability.
On Ants, Individual scenes in turn play out, and many times these are tear jerkingly good. The song Mark’s Theme for instance is a short instrumental eulogy to Lewis Evans’s uncle, who passed away from coronavirus early last year. In the short space of two minutes, the band say more with their instruments than many other bands could do with the skill of words. Mournfully led by Evans’ saxophone work and May’s lilting piano, the track floats like a paper boat in water, before it’s crushing end. Merely a recording of Mark after a night out, singing away joyfully without a care for the world. You can hear the stumble in his voice, and even to one who doesn’t know the meaning of the song, it’s ‘music box’ quality is enough to provide goosebumps. Even the part where the band stop playing for 20 odd seconds and do a John Cage is powerful.
The next track, ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’ is another moment of gorgeous instrumentation. May’s piano here sounds less anti music than on the previous album (which opened with her robotic repetitive synths), instead her playing sounds as if it could come straight out of a complicated famous french ballet. Evans trades saxophone for flute here, and between them they provide palliative care to Wood’s syrupy lyrics, detailing two people fighting single handedly against the rest of the world. By far the most optimistic moment on the album, despite it’s sometimes overly cheesy lyrics.
On Snow Globes 36 guitar notes are played on reserve for 9 minutes, allowing the spotlight to shine on Charlie Wayne’s free jazz esque drumming. Boldly his performance blusters unpredictably, set higher than the vocals in the mix. The performance plays out just like the variable weather changes Wood is singing about atop of it, and locks in perfectly, without it sounding like an idiot showing off his drum skills pretentiously. The subtle details in the lyrics concerning different Gods and a cut throat friendship with whoever ‘Henry’ is are extremely moving, even when we don’t know anything except the shadow of the character Wood is portraying.
Mind you, whilst one can say the band have really made a huge departure from their debut, Wood’s narratives still play out like being stuck in a brain on a peripatetic journey. Chain smoking his way through his unresolved school memories, bad wifi connections, and spiritual acceptance, we really get a microscope into his unfiltered mind, usually on the reoccuring theme of his failing relationship(s). On Chaos Space Marine, the albums lead single, this is entirely proven. In the slightest detail, Wood juxtaposes his escape in playing Warhammer to this failing relationship, backdropped by the most playful instrumental of the album. The half coda towards the end and the coordinated intro solo of the song are only two of seemingly many minuscule pieces that make up a great band.
On Concorde, the band continue wackily messing around with the time signature while Wood interestingly compares his refusal to let go of his relationship to the government’s refusal to let go of the Concorde. Unfortunately on this one the septet lead up to a somewhat underwhelming closer. I can’t help but wish they’d got to the point a little sooner, only given the fact it’s 6 minutes long. Still, without this song the following tweet wouldn’t exist: ‘BCNR use the best use of the word Concorde in a song since Tinie Tempah (Pass Out)’.
On Bread Song, Wood perfects this song topic at it’s finest. Conceived after Wood saw Steve Riech’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ live, ‘Bread Song’ sounds very much like a jam performed on planet x; spending it’s first three minutes in a freefall trance, before its plates connect. That being in the form of floating sax, violin, keys, guitar and piano looking for the flotsam of drums that kick in in the second half, where Wayne’s well chosen rimshot hits provide an aesthetically pleasing climax. From the get go, these floroushes of improvisation are dropped into the mix while Wood’s stream of concious narrative rides its waves. Like any great narrative, it’s focus on peculiar, heartbreaking details makes it especially human. The lines about trying to get through to your s/o through a headset sound like a dystopian foretelling of the years to come.
It’s hard to believe that the song ‘Haldern’ was written completely while the band were improvising at the Haldern Pop Festival, but here we are. Crisp and nervous guitars moonlight behind the rise and fall of Sax and Violin performances, before the song incubates into a stadium filling slap. The spiritual, somewhat paganistic ritual lyrics about dealing with shame here are exceptional, seriously. I wont pretend to understand them, but do more of this. It’s very good, making up for the somewhat underwhelming and slightly muddled ‘Good Will Hunting’ that comes beforehand.
Yeah, maybe I could say Ants From Up There would make an even more stellar listen if the band spent a little longer writing a few of the songs, but it is hard to deny that at it’s best, it isn’t just good, it’s phenomenal. The monumental quality of it’s closing track puts all of this into perspective. Opening quietly, Evans proves that simplicity is the key to success with his crying, forever memorable saxophone riff. The guitars backing this are so reserved that I can’t hear them while walking home from work with headphones on. A few minutes in, Woods breath leaves his mouth and he delivers a soliloquy about the bands growth between record 1 and 2 which feels like some kind of unannounced band statement. Dynamically more instruments join the piece, their motifs opening and closing around Wood’s bleeding voice before breaking out into subsequent passages of instrumentation. By the second half it speedily builds. Tying every sound they’ve had together into a final coda, where BCNR throw everything they have at the wall as if the world is burning and they have a minute left to play. It’s loud, it’s insane, it starts to sound a bit like Slints Good Morning Captain at one point. Then from no where, excited kazoos enter the mix and the record culminates in a batshit crazy set of screams from all members of the band. Never a dull moment here.
Key Tracks: Chaos Space Marine, Bread Song, Haldern, Mark’s Theme, The Place Where He Inserted The Blade, Snow Globes, Basketball Shoes
Ants From Up There will be released via Ninja Tune Records on 4th February 2022