Just over a year ago, Black Country, New Road released its debut album For the first time, which featured singles like “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses,” and experimented with post-punk, free jazz, math rock, and even klezmer. The album received widespread critical acclaim for its innovative sound and poetic lyricism, leading to its eventual nomination for the Mercury Prize. The band became part of the new wave of “talk-singing” post-punk acts emerging from the UK and garnered a devoted following, especially among young listeners.
By last fall, the group had already finished a new set of tracks and began playing “Bread Song” and “Basketball Shoes” at their live performances. These songs would eventually intergrate into the group’s sophomore album, Ants From Up There. However, just days before its release, the band’s lead vocalist Isaac Wood announced his resignation from the group to prioritize his mental health. The band subsequently canceled their upcoming tour dates and released the album as its last as a seven-member group.
Despite this, the new album stands on its own as a statement of reinvention. With Ants From Up There, the band has evolved both sonically and thematically from jokingly being the “world’s second best Slint tribute act.” The album is most akin to “Track X”, an outlier on their debut release, which featured singing rather than speaking and served more as a slow-burn instead of the band’s usual dynamic style. This change saw BCNR move towards more pop-oriented song structures and accessible sounds, citing influences from Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever. However, the band didn’t abandon their unorthodox creativity, with the group unveiling its most diverse set of sounds yet – spanning the spectrum of warm passages of baroque pop in “Chaos Space Marine” to intense waves of post-rock in “Snow Globes.” These shifts would often occur within the same track, with many involving slow build ups to cathartic climaxes.
The project also boasts a greater appreciation for cohesion, containing repeating sonic and lyrical motifs that knit the album neatly together. By combining these elements, Ants From Up There swerves expectations and represents a significant leap forward from their debut.
One of the most glaring differences between Ants From Up There and For the first time is the lyrics. The debut album was often emotionally apathetic and voiced by fictional characters. While somewhat personal, frontman Isaac Wood held the audience at a distance. With this new album, the band switched approaches and delivered an unexpected emotional vulnerability. In “Bread Song”, between the gradual development of an initial post-rock section and an exuberant indie folk finish, Wood sings about heartbreak from a broken, one-sided relationship. He wistfully sings “Okay, well I just woke up / And you already don’t care / That I tried my best to hold you / Through the headset that you wear.” Only when he feels the “particles of bread” he leaves in his partner’s bed, does he understand why his desires to be emotionally intimate are rejected. On the centerpiece of the album, “Concorde,” he compares his partner to the supersonic passenger plane that spectacularly failed despite great financial investment. He copes with this loss by defining his only purpose as loving his partner and irrationally crying out, “I was made to love you / Can’t you tell?”
After the interlude of “Mark’s Theme,” which serves as a tribute to saxophonist Lewis Evans’ uncle – an early supporter of the band who passed away from COVID – the album concludes with three lengthier tracks. “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” is perhaps the furthest departure from the group’s earlier work. Instrumentally, the track is warm and uplifting. It is initially led by a piano-flute pairing and crescendos into a parlor song anthem much like what you would hear on an early Bright Eyes song. “Snow Globes” combines a lone violin, steady bass, and Wood’s longing vocals with a frenetic, jazzy drum solo. It almost sounds as if two bands are playing at once, but it works as a brilliant demonstration of tension and release.
The 12-minute finale and fan favorite “Basketball Shoes” was described by the band as a “medley of the whole album,” containing both lyrical and sonic passages from previous tracks. The song depicts the destructive ending of the album’s central relationship as Wood sings, “Concorde flies in my room / Tears the house to shreds.” Although he ultimately accepts this, he attempts to “pray to forget” the future he could never have with his partner. “Basketball Shoes” ends in a cathartic finale, with all the instruments and Wood at full volume. It’s a stunning closer that sees this iteration of the band end on a high.
The group’s remaining members announced that they would no longer perform their past songs but reassured their fans that they have already started working on new music. Although it may feel as if listeners have lost something special, what we are left with now is nothing short of a band surpassing expectations with a completely moving, if not overwhelming, album. If there’s any group that would be able to overcome this change and find a new direction, it would be Black Country, New Road.