Where Black Country, New Road’s debut album, ‘For the first time’, was heralded by a bullet train of hype far ahead of its release, the band’s second – though still with a warranted level of momentum – feels like the pressure has tapered.
Appropriately, for the brisk time between albums, the band’s latest feels like a slightly refreshed iteration of the past. Rather than the breakneck pace on their debut record, this album mostly revels in a colossal slowness that extracts several tonnes more heaviness. The album feels much more spacious, steeped in a more contemplative, pensive romanticism.
Prior elements are contorted into new, even more wildly fascinating elements; a klezmer-centred Intro on their debut; a more succinct, and more on the intro here. This time it segues fluidly into ‘Chaos Space Marine’, which – like a slinky descending an increasingly narrow spiral staircase – sends the sax into a continuously maddened spin. The band’s use of backing vocals, first witnessed like a biblical ray of light on ‘Track X’ – also the first of the band’s releases you could call ‘poppy’) – also gets fleshed out. They’re used wholly differently, but to siphon a similar yearning as ‘Track X’ – signifying the divergent tributary this album takes from past material.
Most parts of the record eschew prior traces for a hybrid of late-period Dylan (specifically the bluesy plea of ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’, inspired by 2020’s ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind…’) and weirdo jazz, Moonshake-evocative beast – as on ‘Good Will Hunting’s electronic-swirling elegy, culminating in a gloriously filthy skronk. This abandonment could be construed as bold (most notably the klezmer elements which made their former era so unique), but for this group it feels natural. It also has far more longevity across the album, combatting a slightly bloated length.
Like any other example of utterly distinct lyrical finesse, those on Black Country’s second album have a surreal permanence after only several listens. The angle of these lyrical riches grows ever more sentimental and singular; only Wood could wring so much profundity from a pleading wail to “show me the place where he inserted the blade”; or the beauty wrapped in the seemingly mundane “particles of bread” on the marvel of ‘Bread Song’.
This track – a tender yarn of epic, sweeping proportions with “no time signature” – also exemplifies a radically new approach the group took. Inspired by pioneering composer Steve Reich’s ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ – in which a bar length is driven by the musician playing “…until they run out of breath…”, a technique Black Country applied to the whole band: “… we don’t look at each other, we don’t make too many cues, we just try and play without time…”, Wood explains. Such a move is emblematic of the continued, but reinvigorated, spirit of improvisation on the new record.
Haldern summarises their magic elixir for improvisation in another way, as the first time they “…basically wrote a whole song…” from jamming, Wood says. The track’s journey – from staccato strings, slowly effusive sax and percussive piano to a malaise of all of these, ratcheted up to a noxiously moving verve – echoes this spontaneous approach. A climax of increasingly hurried saxophone stabs and piano evokes this hot, heavy air of improvisatory creation especially well.
More melodic and anthemic than ever, ‘Ants From Up There’ captures Black Country, New Road at a critically transformative juncture, creative juices well and truly pumping; post-punk landfill an impossibility. Overall, the ensemble sound incredibly close to the freewheeling jams fans are accustomed to; in short, they meet the sky-high potential teased on their first record.
Words: James Kilkenny
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