Black Country, New Road offer up a stunning sophomore album in the form of Ants From Up There, which comes in the wake of lead singer Isaac Wood announcing his departure from the band. Whilst the future of the band is unclear, Wood has signed off from the band with some of his greatest vocal and lyrical performances to date, ensuring that his presence will never be forgotten.
After their second single “Sunglasses”, released back in 2019, a whirlwind of post-rock inspired guitar sections blended with spoken-word post punk witticism that explodes in a frenzy of blaring saxophones, the band were on everyone’s radar. Known for their notoriously good live shows, the band took to the studio to record Mercury Prize nominated For The First Time, released 5th February 2021. Now, almost exactly a year later, the band have to released Ants From Up There on 4th February 2022.
Album two feels like the natural progression for a band like Black Country, New Road to take. They have refined their sound, incorporating more texture and emotion than their previous effort, yet still retaining their distinctiveness, which can be heard in the harmonies of the strings which compliment the post-rock influenced guitars. With the success of their debut, the band have not hesitated to get stuck into making something that they feel is more cohesive, an album that saxophonist Lewis Evans asserts every member loves “every single moment,” containing “a bit more of a musical through-line,” making it “feel more like an album.”
Just like For The First Time, Black Country, New Road begin the album with a short instrumental piece, entitled “Intro”. The saxophone-led piece perfectly introduces the album’s ability to blend snappy instrumentation alongside a distinct tenderness that permeates throughout. The album then moves into a similarly peppy and upbeat “Chaos Space Marine”, a departure from BC, NR’s usual sound, yet Wood describes the creative process of the track as “a really fast, whimsical and silly approach – like throwing all the shit at the wall and just letting everything stick.” Although certainly not to the taste of all existing fans due to the track’s overly anthemic chorus and lively piano, the track demonstrates the band’s ability to not take themselves too seriously. However, the song is arguably the weakest on the album, and would potentially sound a lot more cohesive without it. A fun track on its own, amongst the album’s beautifully tender tracks and lyrical themes, “Chaos Space Marine” is lacking the emotionally powerful quality that every other track possesses.
“Concorde”, the album’s third track, and the second single to be released in anticipation for the album, is a gorgeous slow building track that transcends into an incredible explosion of saxophones and driving guitars. Lyrically, Wood explores humour with direct tenderness, moving from the comic yet painful “don’t tell me your hungry / cause, darling, I’m starving myself / And I heard your on Atkins as well,” to “I was made to love to you / can’t you tell?” in the space of a few seconds. It becomes prominent that failing relationships are a central theme on the album, which continues in “Bread Song”, a minimalistic soundscape driven by mellow guitars and keys to accompany the nervous strain in Wood’s voice. The track proves to be one of the band’s most attentive and delicate to date, with a standout performance from every member.
The album picks up some momentum with “Good Will Hunting”, which features caustic drums that pierce through the track alongside the repetitive keys, before building into a loud intensity matched by Wood’s vocals. In line with the band’s earlier tracks that reference musical icons from Kanye West to Richard Hell, Wood sings “she had Billie Eilish style,” which is repeatedly referred to throughout the album. However, it doesn’t pack the same humorous punch as “Leave Kanye out of this!” from ‘Sunglasses,’ instead coming of slightly rigid and cringy, undermining the far superior quality of Wood’s writing that is evident on the rest of the album.
The following track ‘Haldern” redeems the album from potentially sagging from the weight of “Chaos Space Marine” and “Good Will Hunting”. The track was originally improvised at Haldern Pop Festival in Germany and showcases the band’s immeasurable talent at working harmoniously together to create a song without much prior thought. Wood stated that “every now and then in the middle of a gig we’ll do some improvisation because it can be really fun. When we did it this time, we basically wrote a whole song, which is the first time we’ve ever done that.” Keys player May Kershaw shines on the track, bringing the rest of the instruments together to create a melancholically beautiful sound, which becomes punctuated by the crashing drums of Charlie Wayne. Wood’s writing truly shows its strengths here, opening the track by singing, “Ignore the hole I’ve dug again/ it’s only for the evening.”
A standout moment of the album is “Mark’s Theme”, a tribute to Evan’s late uncle Mark, who died a day before the release of For The First Time. The short piece is a phenomenal demonstration of the band’s classical training, a hauntingly beautiful and sentimental track that is unforgettable. You can only imagine that witnessing a performance of the track live would leave everyone stunned and transfixed by the mournful strings and saxophone that are some of the band’s finest instrumental work.
As the album reaches its final few tracks, “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” perfectly captures what the band seem to have been alluding to in interviews – that they are “trying to make [their] music really accessible.” The song balances a crowd-friendly chorus with gentle strings and nostalgic backing vocals that chime in near the end of the song, feeling like the musical equivalent of leaving the pub, buzzing off the excitement of catching up with old friends. This “accessibility” is not so evident on “Snowglobes”, a divisive track due to its intense and interfering drum solo that dominates the latter part of the track. However, the drums only elevate the track to greater heights, adding a crushingly hard impact to the song which is mainly intricate strings, sax, and guitars until this point. The drums roll like thunder behind Wood’s heart-breaking delivery, repeating the lines “God of weather, Henry knows/ Snowglobes don’t shake on their own,” with a raw intensity. Violins carry the track to even greater emotional depths, making it one of the album’s strongest tracks.
Finally, the album draws to a close with “Basketball Shoes”, almost thirteen minutes in length, and definitely the band’smagnum opus. If this is the last song we hear from Wood as a part of Black Country, New Road, he has left on an extraordinary high note. The song traverses differing terrains, parts explosive, parts euphoric, parts so incredibly emotional that you may wonder if they could ever top such a track. Wood states that the song is “the whole basis and blueprint for the album,” which is no surprise due to the indelible impact it leaves on all that hear it. The song has been a live fan-favourite for a while, so its official release comes with much anticipation. Divided into three parts, the song scratches every musical itch – erratic strings, immaculate post-rock guitar tones, and an astounding nostalgia-tinged emotional delivery from Wood, who screams the final verse in one of his most memorable vocal performances yet.
Black Country, New Road prove themselves to be one of the greatest British bands to have emerged over the past decade, constantly evolving and adapting with each track, delivering sheer amounts of emotion with every single string and guitar chord. Many of the band’s finest works are to be found on Ants From Up There. Bassist Tyler Hyde asserts that “It was such a pleasure to make. I’ve kind of accepted that this might be the best thing that I’m ever part of for the rest of my life,”and this couldn’t be more evident in these ten tracks.