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‘Black Country’ takes a new direction

| Friday, February 11, 2022

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Last year was an interesting one for music, to say the least, with the world still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With most of the international touring circuits closed since 2020, it was not an ideal time for any artist to release new music, much less a debut album.

Luckily for indie alternative rock fans, Black Country, New Road’s debut album, “For the first time,” turned the Cambridge experimental band into a darling of the UK underground scene. After receiving glowing reviews from Pitchfork to NPR, Black Country went from “a band to watch out for” to one of the leading acts in the so-called “Post Brexit-core” scene.

Despite being a hilariously nondescript term, “Post Brexit-core” is an established genre with bands, like Black Midi and Squid, that are characterized by their experimentation with traditional rock song structures and blending of genres with an emphasis on post-punk flair. “For the first time” is an album that somehow managed to effortlessly mix post-punk, free jazz improvisation, post-rock song structures, math-rock rhythms and even traditional Jewish Klezmer music into a cohesive masterclass of a rock record.

Much of the sonic descriptors of “For the first time” carry over into Black Country’s sophomore release, “Ants From Up There.” The album was released four days after frontman and lyricist Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band for mental health reasons. Wood’s spoken-word style of singing and poetic yet cheeky lyrical contributions are the two of the most discussed aspects of their debut album. “Ants From Up There” is more somber and introspective — perhaps a reflection of Wood’s state of mind during the recording of the album and leading up to his departure from the band. As a defining part of Black Country’s unique sound, he will be sorely missed.

It’s apparent that “Ants From Up There” is an evolution of the band’s sound. In their sophomore album, Black Country ditches the Slint-influenced math-rock riffs from their debut album, instead opting for the baroque-pop stylings similar to Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” or Arcade Fire’s “Funeral.” “We joked about being like Arcade Fire,” Wood said in an interview with The Guardian. “… We’ve basically written a new album which sounds like that — straight-up indie.”

Unlike their debut, “Ants” frequently employs acoustic instruments, classical orchestration, saxophone and synthesizers that combine to give this record a more timeless and grandiose sound. Their previous songs — like “Athens, France” and “Science Fair” — veer into completely unexpected directions. The new singles, “Concorde” and “Chaos Space Marine,” indicate the band is conforming to a more predictable pop structure and progression. The production quality of the new album has increased. In some cases, the mixing can be questionable, exemplified by the deafening drums in the final half of “Snow Globes.” However, the band has made more of an effort to ensure every instrument is clear, distinct and energetic to emphasize the album’s ambitious songwriting.

Overall, “Ants From Up There” proves that Black Country is far from a one-record wonder. The band continues to show maturity in their songwriting and lyrics by delivering an ambitious and grandiose record that explores the group’s sonic versatility. Although Wood was undoubtedly key to this, his departure presents the band even more opportunities to evolve their music in new and exciting directions. 


Artist: Black Country, New Road

Album: “Ants from Up There”

Label: Ninja Tune

Favorite Tracks: “Concorde,” “Chaos Space Marine,” “Basketball Shoes”

If you like: Black Midi, Squid, Slint, Lingua Ignota

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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