Updated: Sep 29
Louis Bennett spreads his (delta) wings and guides us through an album he loves - revelling in unorthodoxy while rooted in romantic pop culture.
Band: Black Country, New Road
Album: Ants From up There
Release: 2022 on Ninja Tune
Despite only being released in the dawning months of this year, Black Country, New Road’s sophomore offering is already well on its way to becoming the best of the current decade. They create an experimentally fuelled, post-rock masterpiece which holds an emotive essence that is challenging to capture in just words; one of the primary reasons why I strongly suggest experiencing it from front to back.
From the roots of their Mercury Prize nominated debut For The First Time, the then 7 now 6 person strong collective Black Country, New Road, found themselves rapidly becoming critically acclaimed indie darlings, receiving affirmations for their impressively original, and more melodic approach to post punk.
While their debut admittedly planted itself into a sonically harsher realm than this follow-up, the band have always maintained a similar charm throughout their discography. Whether that charm manifests itself through the longing lyricism tinged with humorous inflection, or through the gut-wrenching vocal performances from ex lead vocalist Isaac Wood, there is almost certainly something to emotionally attach yourself to.
While their debut received a coveted Mercury Prize nod – potentially the most celebrated, shiny little trophy in British music – their follow up did not. Now, initially, this could have signalled a drop in quality, perhaps an existing model of the ‘difficult second album’; however, it proved quite the contrary with critics, garnering positive reception from virtually all publications. Realistically though, with the promise of their debut, was a further mastering of their art a surprise?
In some ways, the answer is yes, given the sheer magnitude at which Ants From Up There strikes. The collective particularly perfect the crescendo, each and every soaring climax impacting like a physical puncture. In fact, a physical reaction is exactly what these performances elicit throughout, from the goliath ending of Concorde to the eclectically chaotic rattles of Snow Globes.
Concorde: a track that lives up to its name; an industrial, airborne monster that seems to soar with desperate hope, and then, nosedive to its death in the track’s devastating closing moments. A similar theme ensues lyrically, outpouring a desperation “just to look for [their] light”, and comparing love for someone to a new “organ” being formed. It’s a longing at its most heartbreaking, and Wood’s vocals do more than enough to match that.
It would also be a crime not to mention what the band themselves have branded as the “best song we’ve ever written” in Chaos Space Marine, an equally large, yet more eclectic offering, touching on the most maximalist parts of jazz and pop, all while still managing to successfully incorporate it into their rock aesthetic.
From here, the album reads as an ode to a significant breakup, documenting each detail as it comes to mind. In particular, Bread Song zooms its focus to the diminutive “particles of bread” that litter the bed of a once intimate relationship; an ingenious metaphor that depicts betrayal through something as miniscule as leaving breadcrumbs in a bed once perfectly made for a budding relationship. Another mark on the board that confirms BC, NR’s impressive ability to attend to the little things while being musically maximalist.
Considering Isaac Wood’s surprising departure from the band, Pitchfork theorised that this breakup up may not conventionally refer to a romantic relationship whatsoever, but rather to the departure from a band that were just about to release a triumphant record. Indeed, Wood stating “Isaac will suffer, Concorde will fly” could refer to his unfortunate parting from the band just before an album that would garner them reverence and awe beyond what many indie bands could dream of.
Beyond the speculation that comes hand in hand with such complex lyricism, it would seem that the collective initially had simpler, more linear directions for this album. They wanted to make hits. Now, I’m guessing by this, they don’t mean water down their sound enough to impact the top 40, but still, it could have easily resulted in a pop-leaning effort. The end result is almost comically opposite; the majority of the tracks here stretch over six minutes: not the most radio friendly way of creating a “hit”.
With the aforementioned Bread Song, and ample others on the album, this duration can seem daunting at first; however, the band exploit this length as an opportunity to flex their muscles of visceral musicality. The three finishing tracks (The Place Where He Inserted the Blade, Snow Globes, and Basketball Shoes) perfectly exemplify this, with the latter being the most ambitious stretch. The Place Where He Inserted the Blade, I would argue, is the best – and most quintessentially BC, NR – song on the album, a place where all emotions culminate in a chorus built for the saddest arena you’ve ever seen. The track totally abandons any reservations, opting for anger, despair, and a compelling agony.
Between its mammoth instrumental ambition and emotional breakdowns, Ants From Up There already feels like an instant classic. It’s brash, it’s imperative, and it’s visceral in the most viscously emotive manner. The most impressive part of everything mentioned here though is that a certain charm is always maintained; there’s always a nudging humour to their lyricism that encourages a chuckle amongst the tears. In short, the album is a victory lap for the now departed lead singer, while also standing as a personal best for the remaining members; it is simply a true staple in modern music.
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