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Reviewed: Black Country, New Road – Ants from Up There

BCNR harken back to their indie-rock influences whilst continuously pushing the envelope for alternative music 

Following their 2021 breakthrough debut, For the First Time, Cambridgeshire-based Black Country, New Road defined themselves as one of the most inventive and exciting bands in the current wave of envelope-pushing post punk bands, including Black Midi, Shame and Squid. Combining an anxious lyricism with an increasingly unnerving instrumental timbre complete with janky, abrasive guitar tones, fusion-inspired brass sections and klezmer-style drum patterns. Tracks such as Sunglasses, Track X and Athens, France became anthems for ‘sad boi’ post-punk enthusiasts that year.

With this in mind, expectations for their follow-up LP, Ants from Up There, were understandably high. The album’s first few singles, Concorde, Chaos Space Marine, Bread Song and Snow Globes all seemed to convey a distinct new sonic direction for the band. Concorde’s lazy, swung rhythm and Bread Song’s use of a clean, almost acoustic guitar tone, were indicative of BCNR’s embracement of a more melodic and early-2000s indie-pop inspired sound. Chaos Space Marine also introduced several instrumental elements that were previously unheard on the band’s prior material. Featuring a frantic piano line after a bright klezmer opener, the optimism is quickly undercut by front man Isaac Wood’s haunting vocal passage before transitioning into a bittersweet, yet uplifting chorus which sounds as if it’s been sampled from an early Killers record: “So I’m leaving this body, and I’m never coming home again. I’ll bury the ashes, between the window and the kingdom of men”.

It’s not just Chaos Space Marine where this indie influence can be heard, one of the album’s standout tracks, Good Will Hunting, features infectiously catchy electric guitar riffs throughout the verses, building up to an explosive outro that’s rhythmically reminiscent of BCNR’s recent cover of MGMT’s Time to Pretend. As well as this, the soothing backing vocals provided by violinist Georgia Ellory and the broader acoustic timbre recreates a sonic atmosphere not entirely dissimilar to early Arcade Fire LPs, particularly Funeral. The track’s lyrics especially reflect the melancholically tongue-and-cheek style that Wood pursues throughout the album: “She had Billie Eilish Style, Moving to Berlin for a little while, Tryna find something to hold on to, Never texts me nothing, But she wants to tell me, She’s not that hard to find” – echoing the former front man’s longing for codependency, a theme that runs throughout the album.

The final three tracks of Ants from Up There take up the lion’s share of the total 58-minute long run time. Starting with what, in my opinion, is the album’s most emotionally resonant track The Place Where He Inserted the Blade. This seven-minute long ballad features a distinctive rural timbre, made possible through the woodwind arrangements and heavy use of a discordant piano line. The lyrics centre on Wood’s attempted reconciliation of his anxieties surrounding the various un-comfortabilities of intimacy and his unending desire for the domesticity, depicted through the repeated refrain – “Oh, but everytime I try to make lunch for anyone else, in my head, I end up dreaming of you” – as well as the plentiful food metaphors throughout the track.

Snow Globes and Basketball Shoes offer an explosive finale to an otherwise sonically subdued and instrumentally minimal record. Toms and crash cymbals blare throughout Snow Globe’s long outro, with drummer Charlie Wayne delivering a free-jazz inspired line which contrasts perfectly with Wood’s increasingly manic and gravelly vocal performance. Closing with the three-part sexually frustrated odyssey of Basketball Shoes, BCNR offer their heaviest instrumental of the album, discordant saxophones, droning basslines and gritty guitar tones underpin some of Wood’s most poignant lyrics on the album which successfully tie together the key themes of despair and longing on Ants from Up There, “Your generous loan to me, your crippling interest”.

In the wake of Wood’s recent departure from Black Country, New Road and the confirmation that the band will continue without their former frontman, Ants from Up There signals a new beginning for the experimental post-punk outfit, whilst building upon the greatest qualities of their 2021 debut. For fans of modern experimental rock, innovative indie-inspired sounds or sophisticated and eclectic instrumentals, I’d highly recommend Ants from Up There – one of the most impressive albums released so far this year.

 

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