REVIEW: BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – ANTS FROM UP THERE

Black Country, New Road’s sophomore record is a true landmark in alternative rock music. A devastating, crushing and explosive tour-de-force of sheer melancholy, intensity, chaos and catharsis.

BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – Ants From Up There

[Post-Rock, Avant-Rock – UK – Ninja Tune]

They may sound like one of those shit southern dad rock bands, but don’t let the name Black Country, New Road put you off as this young English chamber rock ensemble are changing the landscape of contemporary rock and alternative music. Equal parts King Crimson, Godspeed, Arcade Fire, Black Midi and something else entirely, BC, NR seemingly came out of nowhere on the promise of a couple of wild and lengthy singles at the start of this decade. Signing to legendary electronic-leaning UK label Ninja Tune, their 2021 debut album For The First Time was a surprise storm; an unhinged whirlwind of chaos, noise, post-rock, math rock, seething violins, dreamlike woodwind, manic brass and the bizarre stream-of-consciousness ranting and raving of vocalist and lyricist Isaac Wood taking the centre stage.

In just forty short minutes, BC, NR’s debut album blew me apart listen after listen and left me wanting so much more each time. Ants From Up There leaves me feeling full and then some, running at just shy of an hour. The septet have knuckled down and expanded their vision so perfectly, using that extra running time to expand the sonic space, their dynamic structures and control their chaos, resulting in a record that is brighter, bolder and more complete. Listening back to their debut after many listens of this follow up, I can see clearer now that some of the tracks on that album were more sporadic and loosely tied together. Though not a bad thing, the three act nine minute anthem ‘Sunglasses’ traversed through more clever ideas than one song could handle, and there isn’t really a song quite as loose and free-form as this here, as exhilarating as that song is. If For The First Time was a suffering artist blurting out to their therapist their most dangerous thoughts and darkest secrets, then Ants From Up There is a calm; an acceptance; the sound of a troubled soul working through their hardships. This sentiment could apply to the septet as a whole, or even the idiosyncratic, enigmatic voice that is Isaac Wood…

How do I succinctly describe a record that gives me absolutely everything!? Every song here is a winner and a standout. From the energetic Sparks riffing drama of ‘Chaos Space Marine’ to the album closer to close all albums, ‘Basketball Shoes’, BC, NR use every second of this recording to their complete advantage. ‘Concorde’ is an early hard hitter that just couldn’t have existed on their previous album. With jangly guitars and even a more rounded attempt at singing from Wood, there’s a Big Thief vibe running through this song that is just as high on emotion. The rousing brass and twinkling pianos add so much colour and warmth to this composition, in opposition to the noisy discordance they would often bring on their debut. Through laid back jazzy drums with climbing and tumbling dynamics, ‘Concorde’ is hopeful, uplifting and wonderous. Perhaps in a bizarre way, this is as close as Wood gets to penning a love song… “Darling I’m starving myself, and I heard you’re on Atkins as well, I was made to love you, can’t you tell?” The final climax of this song sees Wood’s singing turn to a bitter scream as loud saxophone blares over swirling distorted guitars, sending glorious shivers down my spine every time.

‘Bread Song’ is a slow-burning epic that is driven with a brittle folk guitar arpeggio, with the rest of the ensemble staying fairly quiet until they gradually enter one by one in the second leg. Wood’s voice here is one of deep melancholy, sounding quieter and more sombre than we’ve ever heard him before. This song constantly hangs on a knife edge where it feels like it could explode at any point but never does. ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘Haldern’ both have a Steve Reich thing going on with counterpoint rhythms, but if anything it shows just how much more of an impact the chamber half of BC, NR are having on their sound going forwards. The strings, woodwind and brass all play a greater melodic role, adding so much warmth and depth to the compositions. The septet are sounding much more like one large unifying voice here and have taken these songs to a whole new level, sounding like every post-rock, prog and math-rock fan’s wet dream.

The last two tracks alone take up an entire third of this album’s total run time, and it feels like the ending of a great movie. ‘Snowglobes’ feels like an expansion on ‘Bread Song’ before it with such a sad and haunting presence. A lone guitar progression lingers as the ensemble enter the sonic sphere in rounds on what is the most overtly post-rock inspired song here, taking cues from Godspeed’s patient and dramatic build ups. Unlike ‘Bread Song’ before it, BC, NR do go off the rails and explode into a cacophony of whiplash drums rolls, agonising screams and maniacal piano. The big twelve minute finale that is ‘Basketball Shoes’ is the closest BC, NR, get to another ‘Sunglasses’ here; a sprawling multi-faceted epic that gets loud and frantic, finding a devastating, crushing doomy guitar riff somewhere in the middle, embellished with Morricone style brass and choral vocals. The big climax sounds like an exhausted band falling to pieces after running a marathon. And yet I just want to hit play and have them do it all over again.

Ants From Up There is not only a spectacular triumph of an album, but a true monument in the pantheon of alternative rock music. Sure, there are plenty of exciting rock artists doing the rounds right now, but few are reaching these levels of sheer exhilaration, intensity and catharsis. Black Country, New Road write and perform as if the wheels could fall off at any minute, and sadly that may have been the case for vocalist and lyricist Isaac Wood, who quit the band days before this album’s release. He offered a statement as cryptic as his lyrics, hinting at struggles with depression, anxiety and stage fright for his sad departure. Who knows if the band can ever be the same without him, but as it stands, Ants From Up There has the legendary power to be as influential as Radiohead’s OK Computer was before it, likely to dictate the sound and shape of many artists to follow throughout this decade. Purest sonic devastation.

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Ants From Up There is out now on all formats through Ninja Tune.

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