Ants From Up There by Black Country, New Road
A Sophisticated Symphony of Chaotic Simplicity
At first, Black Country, New Road sounds like music made when some critical mass of high school band and orchestra drop-outs met up with their respective instruments after finishing Saturday detention and tried to make some music. Start with quick riffs from a sax. Add a subtle baseline. There are some guitars over there! Set up the drumkit. Make it a little discordant. Oh, she has a violin! Is there room in here for a keyboard? ...well, someone has to be courageous enough to sing!
Often, as in "Bread Song" and "Snow Globes," the instrumentation is staunchly straightforward. A handful of repeated riffs, pounding chords, or plucking patterns may carry on for many minutes across a track layered on top of similar short riffs, notes, or plucks. Apart from Lewis Evan's saxophone in "Mark's Theme" or Charlie Wayne's frantically meandering drums in "Snow Globes," there are no extended "solos" or standout moments of musical virtuosity. If you've handled one of the instruments featured by this great band, you could play your part.
Yet, if the above leads you to believe this sophomore album might sound a little sophomoric, you have fallen for my un-clever ruse. The beauty of Black Country, New Road is the dynamism and complexity brought about by the thoughtful combination of many simple parts. By no means are their individual abilities lacking; however, their outstanding musicality is evidenced by their particular restraint as a small role plays into one euphorically building cacophony or fading melody that may seem deceptively simple. Amateurs could not have birthed the powerfully meandering "Haldern" during a live improvisation session that bled into a Weezer cover.
Perhaps the most ostentatious with its filigree of saxophone and violin (Georgia Ellery), "Chaos Space Marine" is buttressed with percussive drums, piano chords, and a bassline. Following the haltingly ecstatic buildup with a recurring riff, the song glides down through the breaking clouds of that repeating riff soothed. Between each repeat, a pithy rejoinder from any member of the band flavors the descent.
To pair with this subtle layering of talent and musicianship is the thinly obscure talk-singing lyricism of Isaac Wood. Writing with the influence of online forums, Minecraft, miniature tabletop games, Futurama, and intimately accessible pop stars. References, references, references. And all along, self-aware wordsmithing nods toward the band's growing fandom and the new scrutiny and weight these words would be under.
Sudden Stardom and an Uncertain Future
Witting or otherwise, these savants of experimental post-punk rock picked up steam in London's underground music scene for some time before releasing their first singles as Black Country, New Road, "Athens, France," and then "Sunglasses" in 2019 with fewer than 1,000 original pressings combined. Despite that, the singles caught the attention of popular music outlets, even being hailed as the "best [band] in the entire world." Hype and anticipation began to skyrocket well before their debut album, For the First Time, was released. Tyler Hyde, Lewis Evans, Georgia Ellery, May Kershaw, Charlie Wayne, Luke Mark, and Isaac Wood careened toward stardom.
Ants from Up There demonstrates a more intentional work and, therefore, a cohesive whole. The band has referenced Arcade Fire's Funeral, Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, and Billie Eilish's Happier Than Ever as influences and stated a more approachable "pop" concept for the album. I would also place Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as a spiritual predecessor -- for constructing a somewhat bizarre yet interwoven internal mythos thoroughly entrenched in the abstract yet intensely soul-bearing songwriting of its vocalist.
In the spirit of NMH, Isaac Wood, that soul-bearing frontman, announced his departure from the band days before the album's release, resulting in a canceled US tour. Seemingly, feeling incapable of bearing the weight of their music and his words upon stages across the globe through the thrilling highs and plummeting lows of their music. Yet, not in the spirit of NMH, Black Country, New Road will live on with the rest of the band. In retrospect, it's easy to read into his words: "Then Isaac will suffer, Concorde will fly." The remaining Black Country, New Road members have been touring under the moniker and just released a video concert album featuring all new music, Live at Bush Hall.
Back to Music and Listening