Today (February 4th), Black Country, New Road’s new album Ants From Up There has been released and it’s a triumphant but safe second album. In this, I mean the music is a very considered delve into their niche, with compelling themes and ideas explored in lyrics underpinned with the expected branding of strange jazz/classical instrumentals reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’.
The only drawback is that I felt the album perhaps remained within the shadow of the group’s debut album of last year, For the First Time, more so than I had expected, and hoped for. Of course, the debut album was a bold and brilliant avant-garde masterpiece that would be difficult to top, and in this new album, they have managed to maintain that level of orchestrated creativity.
My one, and only, criticism is that the London group had hinted that their second album would be a marked departure from the style of their previous album; however, this was not to be.
With my one criticism out of the way, let’s hop into the music. The album opens up with ‘Intro’, an intriguing brass and string arrangement that slowly introduces the band moving towards the first full-length track. ‘Chaos Space Marine’ follows the precedent of the intro which cleverly builds intensity and form with poetic lyrics and delivery from Isaac Wood that appear reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker, the kooky frontman of Pulp – the track has all the elements, bar its youth, of an indie classic. I feel that it’s important to note that ‘Chaos Space Marine’ is the only song to follow the modern trend of the sub-four-minute run-time, which makes the album quite refreshing in an age where attention spans appear to be forcing popular music into increasingly bitesize chunks of superficial confectionary.
Moving through the album, the songs ebb and flow through the band’s trademark jazz and string sections erupting in intense poetry from Wood’s unique voice that appears at once anxious and self-assured. The themes explored across the album are elusive but appear to often point towards personal feelings of romantic nostalgia and uneasiness about the future.
The album cover presents a plastic bag with a toy aeroplane inside, which suggests the group’s anxieties over environmental issues of plastic waste management and carbon emissions. While the music doesn’t directly reference such issues, the tone of Wood’s vocals surfaces such thoughts in the more melancholy moments of the LP. Much of the subject matter seems to convey strained romantic relationships amid mental turmoil that is particularly apparent in ‘Bread Song’, the most plaintive of the ten tracks.
A personal highlight is ‘Snow Globes’, a song with a slow-burning entrance with its entrancing string section building up slowly over the first three minutes – three minutes in which I had half-forgotten to expect the avant-garde tamperings synonymous with the experimental Londoners. Wood’s familiar brooding voice enters, soft at first, followed by the off-beat drum rhythm that builds into a crescendo juxtaposing with the still tranquil background string sections; meanwhile, Wood’s vocals become more intense. The intensity then tapers off, back into the tranquil scenery of the first part of the track, as if waking from a nice dream that turned into a strange nightmare fraught with anxiety.
The album closes with the main course for dessert. The 13-minute track ‘Basketball Shoes’ is a fan favourite from live shows, and has finally received the time it deserved in the studio. The group have certainly delivered on the well-produced epic that carries you through the 13 minutes so seamlessly that it doesn’t seem a struggle at all, as is often the case with such lengthy compositions. The rippling sections are expertly textured with the band’s eclectic instrumental depth in a way that avoids becoming too busy – something Black Country, New Road must be commended for.
Earlier this week, the lead vocalist Isaac Wood announced that he was leaving the group with immediate effect, The sad announcement was ostensibly due to ongoing mental health concerns that he explained: “I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid too. And I have tried to make this not true but it is the kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it hard to play guitar and sing at the same time.” He added: To be clear: this is completely in spite of six of the greatest people I know, who were and are wonderful in a sparkling way.”
It is my sincere hope that Wood overcomes his current situation and returns to what he loves best; whether that’s a return to Black Country, New Road or indeed a new project. His incredible and unique talents have served as a beacon on the modern musical landscape – a refreshing cut against the grain and I hope to hear more from him soon.
Stream the whole album below.