Black Country, New Road Live Up to the Hype on 'For the first time'

BY Charlie McQuaidPublished Feb 2, 2021

Black Country, New Road have been building their idiosyncratic brand for the past couple of years: legendary live performances at vaunted south London venue the Windmill, curious merch choices that included jigsaw puzzles and USB sticks, music videos built from surreal stock images, and Christmas covers of Wham! and Mariah Carey with Black Midi.

The new band, who seem to have arrived fully formed, have already begun to see tantalizing results. With just two singles released, The Quietus dubbed them as "the best band in the entire world." Their pre-loved singles have been exchanging hands for over £100 ($170), and they were scheduled to appear at prestigious 2020 festivals such as Primavera, Glastonbury and SXSW. Hype can be dangerous and the pressure can sometimes be too much — but, thankfully, Black Country, New Road have harnessed the pressure and decided to make a statement with their debut LP, For the first time. And wow, what a statement.

The sound of Black Country, New Road could be described as the merging of post-rock soundscapes with jazz-inflected post-punk, but the nature of the band means it's hard to pinpoint the exact impression. The meshing of classically trained and self-taught players adds depth to the band's sound, creating a unique concoction of precise technical skill and raw, almost primal passion, leading to an unpredictable instrumental delight.

Although Black Country, New Road's music is largely instrumental, when the witty lyrics of Issac Wood come to the fore, attention sharply shifts to the lead guitarist and vocalist. References abound: he name-drops contemporaries like Squid, Black Midi, Fat White Family and Jerskin Fendrix, but most of the references are unfiltered testimonials from his anxiety-ridden life.

Every statement or elliptical narrative should belong in a niche Twittersphere, since they're begging to be accompanied by ironic hashtags. In "Science Fair" Wood moves from "one micro-influencer to another." In the bands most popular and colossal song, "Sunglasses," Wood speaks to his fellow Zoomers with a rousing call: "Leave Kanye out of this / Leave your sertraline in the cabinet / I'm more than adequate / Leave my daddy's job out of this." He is a product of an anxiety-inducing society and a forever switched-on lifestyle, and his lyrics are characterized by the level of hyper-awareness that he and so many of his Gen Z peers possess. Whether intended or not, he nudges you to ask questions: questions of your lifestyle choices, your scrolling habits, your relationships, your upbringing and your future.

The intensity of the album is formed through unsettling vocals, harrowing crescendos, pinches of jazz, klezmer and wild flurries of Arabic rhythms. In the penultimate song, "Track X", the band — also including saxophonist Lewis Evans, keyboardist May Kershaw, drummer Charlie Wayne, guitarist Luke Mark, bassist Tyler Hyde and violinist Georgia Ellery — unfurl a sense of poignancy and tenderness through rich melodies and gentle vocal harmonies. It gives the listener a chance to reflect before the chaotic closing track, "Opus."

The band's relationship with the digital world may be the only thing holding this album back from true greatness. Four of the six songs are widely available online through releases or live performances available online — so fans won't be hearing most of For the first time for the first time. At only six tracks long, this is really just an expensive EP with a nagging lack of new material. On the other hand, Slint — who Black Country, New Road are correctly and constantly being compared to — showed with Spiderland that six tracks can be enough. But, unlike Slint, BCNR live in a digital and content-heavy world where expectations of quantity are sometimes demanded.

For the first time isn't just anxious 22-year-olds making music for other anxious 22-year-olds; it's a raw reflection of the society we've become and the society what we're growing into. It's a capsule of songs written during the band's first 18 months together. It's an honest portrayal of where the band stand at this time — and even that is evolving. Wood has constantly been tinkering with his vocals and lyrics, and previously released singles appear in tweaked form on the album. The band have no interest in repetition, and we can only wonder what will come next. Progression is inevitable and, if Black Country, New Road's honesty and old-fashioned virtuosity continues, we could be witnessing the emergence of a generation-defining band.
(Ninja Tune)

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