Black Country, New Road: “Ants From Up There” Album Review


When Black Country, New Road released their first album For the first time last February, they had been sitting on the hardware for at least a year; songs like “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses”, although ultimately reworked on the album, had already been released since 2019. The band described For the first time like the summary of their first 18 months as a group, a useful framework for such complex but manic work. Last September, the group confirmed that they had already completed a follow-up and started performing “Bread Song” and “Basketball Shoes” during their live sets. These would become parts of Ants from above, the band’s second effort. Released just 364 days later, it’s an incredibly quick turnaround for the London septet, a result of their remarkable productivity.

Yes For the first time documented their beginnings, Ants from above is an obvious starting point. It’s a dramatic step away from their aloof post-punk opera to a brighter, more assured sound. Isaac Wood’s theatrical, quavering voice fits perfectly with the more dynamic moments of tracks like “Chaos Space Marine.” The song’s saxophone and violin stand out, pushing the song towards jazz fusion or roots rock. It sounds like a UK version of the Dave Matthews Band; at any time, it could open and become “Satellite”. “Chaos Space Marine” works exceptionally well in the opening, immersing you in the band’s new pattern. They claim to have attempted to write “tasty” and “three and a half minute” songs, and while they don’t hit the desired length for much of the record, “Chaos Space Marine” is just that: a tight, approachable jam from a band that likes to take its time. They haven’t written a hit, but at least they have their first song that would feel right on stage at a summer concert series.

More than in the sound of the disc, a change is perceptible in the writing of the songs. While Black Country, New Road were initially praised for their dry humor and wit, Ants from above seems quite indifferent to being funny. Wood’s early lyrics often produced vague sketches of women who only told us about their way of life or how they felt about him. However, on new songs like “Good Will Hunting”, we see Wood’s songwriting address this. He again describes his life with another unnamed woman, but is now open about its unreality. Rather than portraying the trappings of wealth around its characters as fact, it’s clearly fantasy. “Good Will Hunting”, which begins with something close to the THX deep note, is remarkable. After a few quieter moments, like the sparse single “Bread Song”, the song’s huge drums provide a welcome change of pace.

What hasn’t changed is Black Country, New Road’s ability to create complex, layered songs that change and grow, without ever staying in one place for too long. The nearly 13-minute closing track “Basketball Shoes” is the best example of their style. Having undergone several revisions, its final version removes all but a passing reference to Charli XCX, who was the subject of the song in its first incarnation. Beginning with muffled growls of guitar and bass, this version of the song unfolds. We get an encore at “Concorde”, and almost halfway through the band goes wild. Quiet then Loud is a tried and tested song structure, but one that Black Country, New Road does exceptionally well. Even after eight minutes, he calms down a second time. The inevitable ascension sees the addition of an apocalyptic choral voice and an arrangement that would be at home in the finale of a rock opera.

The band hasn’t been shy about using pop culture references in their lyrics, either. Besides Charli XCX, there are repeated mentions of Billie Eilish. She becomes Kanye West from this record, whose name Wood shouted on “Sunglasses.” Where does “Athens, France” come from? For the first time almost quoted Phoebe Bridgers’ line, “Why do you sing with an English accent / Guess it’s too late to change it now”, “Snow Globes” half-quotes The Killers’ classic chorus “it doesn’t sound like not at all to Jesus.” “Snow Globes” spends half its runtime leaning into melancholy, with Wood’s vocals harmonizing with fiddler Georgia Ellery’s maudlin work. When the rest of the band joins in for loud, chaotic, out-of-time play, you notice Wood continuing to sing the same. It’s as if a fight breaks out in an audience and the man on stage ignores everything, playing through, only intensifying to overcome the noise.

Recently, Wood announced that while Black Country, New Road would continue as a group, he would be stepping down to prioritize his own sanity. It’s unclear what the band’s future incarnation will sound like, but Wood’s contributions to this album remain unchanged.

Ants from above feels like the work of a band discovering themselves. While they may not use the term themselves, it’s hard to argue that Black Country, New Road can’t be called a jam band. Try as they might create short and digestible pieces, they always last a long time; they are never married to having their songs presented one way and embrace improvisation. Sure, they’re more serious than the stereotypical jam band, but all the markers are there. It’s a record that sees Black Country, New Road recover. After earning acclaim from nearly every outlet after their debut, you get the feeling the band are trying to reset expectations: buried under their own laurels, they’re not afraid to shake them off.

Eric Bennett is a music critic with signatures at Post-trash, The gray domains and The alternative. They are also co-hosts of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.


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