Black Country, New Road Still Soar Above Their Peers on 'Ants from Up There'

BY Eric HillPublished Feb 2, 2022

With last year's For the First Time, youthful and hypercharged UK septet Black Country, New Road rode a wave of accolades that swept them onto numerous year-end Best Of lists. They came on like a gang of high school band kids that chose smoking and red wine over virginity, watching Italian spy movies and trying to figure out how to play Slint covers with added horns and violins. The resulting rush of highly organized chaos earned them a spot of honour amid a rising tide of newly celebrated avant garde British rock bands like Black Midi, Squid and Dry Cleaning.
On follow-up Ants from Up There, the pent up aggression that gave For the First Time its jagged shape has been largely smoothed away to reveal more gently curved, but equally peculiar topographies. Melding disparate obsessions that include the pulsing phases of Steve Reich and the cool rock persona of Billie Eilish, Ants trades occasional urgency with a slower uncoiling of its ideas.
Still, the band launches with a bang in the form of "Chaos Space Marine," the album's lead single that boils down world-conquering aspirations and relationship anxiety, forging them into the shape of a Warhammer 40,000 figurine, sounding a little like a Broadway-ready Arcade Fire tribute. That bloom-and-burst ambition runs through the entire middle of the album with songs opening in swaying balladry and graduating into desperate declaration.
Frontman Isaac Wood — who announced his departure from the group days before the album's arrival — probes both left and right brain in his writing, which nicely evades easy classification. There is a subtle, but never directly stated lockdown protocol that informs lyrics of songs like "Concorde," expressing longing for motion and frustrated by unreachable distances and connections. A peculiar ghost of midwestern emo haunts his quavering delivery, especially on songs like "Good Will Hunting" and "The Place Where He Inserted the Blade," recalling Bright Eyes in their earliest and most expansively desperate moments.
There is a bit of coasting after the midpoint of the album, but this serves as a calm before massive twin storms. "Snow Globes" is an incantation of pulsing guitar notes encircling an ever-approaching blizzard of free drumming that batters its fragile bubble and kinetically matches Wood's repeated refrain of  "Oh god of weather, Henry knows / Snow globes don't shake on their own." The album is capped by "Basketball Shoes," a multi-chambered epic that has long lived as a concert centrepiece. Partly liberated from its initial wet dream musings on Charli XCX, it has become a broader confessional on the kind of longing that fills diary pages and requires an explosive finale.

Like many sophomore albums, Ants from Up There serves both as a clearing house for leftover ideas from the debut and a tentative next step in Black Country's evolution. Serving both purposes results in an album that doesn't necessarily have the same electrical charge as what came before and would benefit from a little trimming here and there. That said, the band is still inarguably one of the most exciting prospects in new music at the moment, and here, the highs are head and shoulders above the majority of their contemporaries.
(Ninja Tune)

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