Black Country, New Road – Islington Assembly Hall 29/6/21 Live Review

Photo by Ashwin Bhandari

Since the world shutdown I always wondered what my first concert would be once they were safe enough to return. Well it’s been 18 months since the pandemic started and even with the vaccines rolling in, life has not gone back to normal by any means. I didn’t even attempt to purchase tickets for this ambitious tour back in February due to the likelihood of every show being cancelled or pushed back to 2022. 

Despite this, I had high hopes that this would be a night to remember. After stumbling from a friend’s house having just watched England beat Germany in the Euro Cup, I met my mate outside the venue. Aside from a few virtual concerts we also had not seen each other since the start of the pandemic, the oozing relief of familiarity felt alien to me at first but I quickly embraced it. 

We took our allocated seats on the bottom floor. Without a support act to sit down and settle into the venue with, after a while I went out to the smoking area. Having not interacted with strangers in so long and with my compulsive tendencies to attempt to strike up conversation, I asked if anyone was part of the ‘Sunglasses posting group.’ (A BCNR shitposting/fanpage). They stared at me with complete bewilderment. It had been a while since I had humiliated myself in public, so naturally I stubbed my cigarette out and went back inside after this conversation went nowhere.

As the lights gradually faded, we sat in silence as drummer Charlie Wayne emerged, thanking us for coming along tonight as well as explaining that all the new material being performed tonight were still ‘works in progress’ of sorts, encouraging us not to film or post them online. The sentiment is understandable, however with the majority of the set consisting of new songs, the temptation not to post at least a few snippets for an instagram story is hard to resist. Each date on this tour has had a different track blasting over the PA before the group’s formal arrival, and tonight we are treated to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”. Opening with “Instrumental”, the quirky track set the scene nicely, with Wayne leading the rhythm with his frantic drum patterns and May Kershaw on keyboard, leading the audience into an almost hypnotic trance before the rest of the seven piece outfit joined the huge stage.

Despite its aesthetically pleasing architecture, at this point it feels like the stage is almost too big for Black Country, New Road to handle all at once. With technical issues cropping up at the start as frontman Issac Wood attempting to find a working microphone and a few of the newer songs whilst grand in scale lacked the polish of older material. Whilst they might consider these tracks to be works in progress, the new material was still absolutely worth hearing, especially as each component of the band makes it feel like not a single moment is being wasted on stage. 

With cuts from For The First Time sprinkled in to bring us back to something more familiar, Issac feels far more enigmatic in his vocal performances live, enhancing the dramatic quips such as “The cursed vultures give me sour dough, my daily bread.” The lighting of the venue itself felt like it was almost melting into the background curtains, enhancing the chaotic nature of their music. Bassist Tyler Hide’s’ soothing vocals in the chorus of “Track X” and the sudden shifting to erratic, borderline discordant violin strokes from Georgia Ellery heighten the different ranges of emotion on display here, coupled by immaculate musicianship all round.

The set noticeably lacks “Sunglasses” or any ABBA covers played on previous dates of the tour, but mysterious new cuts like “Basketball Shoes” and “Snowglobes” give us a bright look into the band’s future. Whether Issac is almost slamming his guitar onto the stage floor or Georgia’s frantic headbanging in the more intense portions of new songs, you can’t deny how mesmerizing the whole show feels; unable to look away or think about the outside world for a glorious one hour and thirty minutes. There is no encore this evening but there doesn’t need to be. Black Country, New Road have gallantly hoisted their flag into the ground and it feels like nothing can stop them.

Black Country, New Road – For The First Time Album Review

Ninja Tune – 2021

Contrary to the album’s title, this is not the first time that keyboardist May Kershaw, saxophonist Lewis Evans, guitarist Luke Mark, drummer Charlie Wayne bassist Tyler Hyde and violinist Georgia Ellery have performed together. However, it is in-fact the first time they have performed under this particular name. It is important to mention this before anyone moans about them appearing out of nowhere or being ‘industry plants’. Nevertheless, BCNR have made a name for themselves as part of the South London gig scene over the last two years, joining the ranks of Squid, Black Midi and Goat Girl and relentlessly working despite the obvious COVID restrictions.

Instrumentally it would be easy to lazily pile them in as Slint worship (Which is referenced on “Science Fair” since music journalists refused to shut the fuck up about comparisons towards them.) but the outcome tends more to veer towards acts like Duster, Low or even the later material from The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. This of course is only a framework for trying to define what they soundlike because they’ve already formed their own sound without needing to adhear to any lazy Pitchfork worship.

In keeping with being unconventional, the opener is a five minute organic jam, full of lingering repetition yet accessible beats and sharp melodies. In a live scenario you could only imagine how much this would hype an audience up before the collective takes the stage. It’s a reminder of that quote from Howard Moon of The Mighty Boosh that goes; “You hate jazz?, you fear jazz with its lack of rules.” This is exactly what he was on about.

Frontman Issac Wood’s delivery on many of these tracks comes across as wobbly, aggressive and unhinged. You can feel a sense of dread and anxiety coursing through the phrasing of these narratives, ranging from mildly sorrowful on “Athens, France” to roaring full blown melt downs later on in the record. “Track X” and “Science Fair” are the most narratively sound and perhaps as a result bring the highest sense of individual identity. Ironic considering that the unpredictability of where these songs take you can make it hard to appreciate what role each member will play, which often requires multiple listens to achieve full appreciation.

One minute you might be lulled with a pretty guitar line or alluring violin section, the next it might feel like someone’s stabbed you in the gums with a screwdriver. Wood’s lyrics often feel like someone writing fragments of thoughts on the iPhone notes app before forgetting what they were actually thinking about. Like watching a David Lynch film, trying to always find clear meanings in each sentiment will ultimately frustrate anyone trying to read between the lines with notions such as; “Now all that I became must die before the forum thread, the cursed vultures feed and spread the seeded daily bread.” 

Fans who’ve been following BCNR for a while may understandably be disappointed that two of the six tracks on here are reworked versions of previous singles, however there are polishes and vocal inflections that at times can change the songs overall delivery. On ‘Sunglasses’ for example, the warm, fuzzy intro chords leaning into the earworm melody is far more effective the the single version in the context of listening to this record in its entirety. Harrison sounds more like he’s accepting his fate of becoming a boring cunt like the father of his partner rather than screaming in denial. Even the line “The absolute pinnacle of British engineering, I am so ignorant now”, oozes with melodic allure rather than a sardonic quip. As the cacophony of instruments blend into a breakdown and tempo change, his character morphs into the very same normie that he feared he would turn into, all whilst failing at any attempts to hide his insecurities. Think of that sunglasses emoji, but with tears streaming down its face. 

8 minute closer ‘Opus’ is by far the most theatrical of offerings on here. It finds its balance between sounding like a sadcore indie offering in the softer sections and a mariachi band set on fire in the louder parts. The result is a bleak, tumultuous journey where our character reaches the end of his relationship. Evans saxophone work here is flawless, building up tension in the slower sections as it becomes a fiery release between each verse. With Harrison’s final, broken vocals with the lines “What we built must fall from the rising flames”, the sentiment that nothing is built to last comes to its conclusion. The final melody in particular resonates and sticks to your very core.

Rather than trying to guess what Black Country, New Road will do next, it’s probably best to enjoy this meandering experience without any predictions. For The First Time is a phenomenal debut that will hopefully secure the group’s future for years to come.