Just four days before the release of Ants From Up There, the follow-up to Black Country, New Road’s collectively lauded debut, the band’s co-founder, lead vocalist, instrumentalist, and creative flagship Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band. Now a sextet, the band’s future is hazy; yet any residue of conflict or insecurity that exists between the group fails to cast itself over their lush musical canvas. Wood’s swansong release is a perfect departure. As he shared on the bands’ Instagram, Ants From Up There is, ‘wonderful in a sparkling way. This latest effort ventures beyond their earlier work and the hype surrounding it.
Black Country, New Road have attained a status of undeniable permanence in this space. As they’ve grown more into their own sound on this record, their confidence and comfort is more clear now than ever. The band has completed the infamously challenging task of maintaining both quality and hype between their debut and now, with what is the strongest album we have seen from the emerging school of math-rock, post-Brexit UK punk bands such as Black Midi, Shame, and Squid.
The album’s ten tracks segue ostentatiously through Black Country, New Road’s collective sonic exhibitionism. Rooted strongly in both free jazz and expressionism, they are unrivaled in their unorchestrated chemistry. ‘Intro’ kicks us off with a crescendo-building layer of virtuosic, looping brass, scattered keys, and a familiarly aggressive rhythm section. We aren’t introduced to Wood’s vocals until track two, ‘Chaos Space Marine,’ in which David Byrne-esque drones of satire and despair riff on popular culture with references to the search for a ‘Billie Eilish Style.’ Wood’s bohemian approach to lyricism hasn’t changed much since their debut, For The First Time, and its Kanye West, meme-dabbling nods.
In many respects, Ants From Up There is worlds away from their first venture. Frayed, often-dwindling spoken word makes way for winding vocal lines, while the chaotic scores and sketchy subject matter of their past are ousted by affecting arpeggios and staccatos. Their searching, lost lyricism has morphed into phrases of stark honesty and an intimacy that adds yet another supremely appealing layer to their repertoire. A broad emotional and rhythmic spectrum is traversed effortlessly by the band, flexing their fluid unison as a group. Moments of real substance are aplenty: ‘Mark’s Theme’ is a moving eulogy to Lewis Evans’ late uncle, an early collaborator and supporter of the band, who passed away from COVID the day before their debut album’s release. The emotion in Evans’ swooning saxophone is tangible, and his performance is one of the most beautiful moments in the album.
Wood’s vocal performance across the album blossoms into a crushing array sure to affirm his style as an archetype for artists hoping to pierce the overcrowded music industry. Wood reaches a heartbreaking solitude in ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade,’ intrepidly exploring the bleak sensitivities of reconciliation, nostalgia, yearning, and healing. It’s a centrepiece for the project, followed by a two-track closer which once again catapults Black Country, New Road to album-of-the-year heights, just 364 days after their album For The First Time.
‘So if you see me looking strange with a fresh style, I’m still not feeling that great,’ Wood recites early on in the twelve-minute behemoth of a closer, ‘Basketball Shoes,’ which the band has had in their seemingly boundless reserves since 2019. It is Isaac Wood’s parting gift to us, masked as a perfect closing track. Brutally transparent, it touches on the details of Wood’s own mental battles, offering greater clarity on his departure. ‘And the clamp is a cracked smile cheek, and it tortures me,’ is screamed over a roaring bassline before the track unwinds into a final, devastating Slint-Faraquet-esque eruption of noise that is perfectly fitting for the band that is, in their own humble words, ‘The world’s second-best Slint tribute act.’
Finding a way to plug the abyss left by Wood’s departure may seem a near-impossible task, but the bottom-line remains that Black Country, New Road could give us an instrumental number as their next offering, and it would still be just as seminal as their current work. With Ants From Up Here, they have proved that they are beyond capable of breaking out of boxes, and I have strong faith in the continuation of their bellwether position in the scene.
Edited by Talia Andrea, Deputy Music Editor, and Josh Aberman, Music Editor