Ants From Up There
Album: Ants From Up There
Artist: Black Country, New Road
Released: February 4th, 2022
Highlights: Chaos Space Marine, Concorde, The Place Where He Inserted the Blade, Basketball Shoes
With their debut record, “For the First Time”, the Cambridgeshire septet of Black Country, New Road set the world on fire; perhaps not to the degree music superstars of this day and age do, but certainly to an extent that was remarkable for an indie band whose music featured spoken-word vocals, quirky song structures, wacky time signatures, unique instrumentation, and guitar tones that ranged from crispy clean to overwhelmingly noisy. The combination quickly drew comparisons to post-rock heroes Slint, who abruptly halted their creative output after releasing their magnum opus “Spiderland”: a hidden gem of 1991 and, sadly, only the second work of their career. Black Country, New Road – who are big fans from the boys of Kentucky – were perhaps aware those parallels would be drawn, as in one of the album’s key cuts, singer Isaac Wood seems to label himself and his friends as the “second-best Slint tribute act”. The self-deprecating attitude, however, was done with the utmost confidence, because Black Country, New Road knew – deep down – they had cooked something thoroughly original despite blatant influences.
As refreshing and great as “For the First Time” was, though, it is hard to find someone willing to argue against the notion that with “Ants From Up There”, their sophomore record, the band takes a considerable step forward. By all means, every single one of the elements that made the debut noteworthy, including the often-mentioned touches of Jewish music, is present. For that reason, Black Country, New Road remains – stylistically – firmly ground on the frontier between post-punk and post-rock inhabited by “Spiderland”. But here it feels like, still working inside that generally unexplored niche, the group manages to push further into uncharted territory thanks to two central elements: melody and grandeur.
Undoubtedly, there are moments here when Isaac Wood still comes off like he is too numb to feel anything, which causes him to veer close but never quite touch the spoken-word spirit of the debut. But through most of the way, it seems the avalanche of emotions that was locked up inside him – which previously only threatened to emerge via lyrical windows into sadness – has broken through whatever was working to keep it contained. The consequence, naturally, is both that his brilliantly penned words gain devastating power, nearly guaranteeing they will take listeners down with them in a spiral of pain, and that the whole affair becomes a lot catchier.
As far as emotional matters go, the centerpieces of the album are “Concorde” and “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”, two tunes in which the singer openly addresses a lover with whom he is on very shaky ground. During the former, as the song reaches its sentimental apex thanks to a wistful chorus, he calls himself a “gentle hill racer”: someone who has been climbing mountains to look for the light of the one he loves. However, the target of his affection, who he compares to the titular retired aircraft, does not stick around. Guided by its nature, it quickly flies overhead with little care for the breathless man standing below it, and while Isaac is happy to have momentarily shared the same sky with his beloved, he is also miserable in the knowledge these little spasms of happiness may be all he will ever get from that relationship.
In “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”, the scenario is not nearly as one-sided, but there is a gnawing uncertainty at the heart of the matter. Before launching into the album’s best chorus, Isaac sings that “Every time I try to make lunch for anyone else, in my head I end up dreaming of you”. In normal circumstances, that could be a positive feeling, but here it emerges soaked in anguish as, for an unknown reason, the one he is talking about seems reluctant to embark on this emotional journey with him and expose their vulnerabilities, alluded to in the song’s title, to him.
When it comes to being catchy, meanwhile, nothing tops “Chaos Space Marine”, which – at least up to this album – is the closest the band has ever come to writing a bona fide radio-friendly single. Rhythmically frantic and clocking in at a surprisingly concise three minutes, this is a tune with hooks pouring out of every corner, be it from the leading voice, the backing vocals, or the prominent saxophone. However, true to its essence, the band does not stop itself from throwing a few curveballs into the mix, as structurally the tune is a charmingly and intense amalgamation of brief but remarkable segments that join forces to form what is almost a mini-suite.
Much like the spectacular melodies emerging from a sound that previously only featured spoken-word, the second ingredient that causes “Ants From Up There” to qualify as a breakthrough, its grandeur, is also evenly distributed through the course of album. Featuring, in its lineup, members who are dedicated to instruments that fall outside the usual rock format, Black Country, New Road – from the very start – employed them wisely to expand the scope of what they could pull off. As such, even on their debut, the piano and keyboards of May Kershaw, the violin and cello of Georgia Ellery, and the woodwinds of Lewis Evans were used to wonderful effect. Here, however, the band seems to have doubled-down on that front, because the intimate spaces where the tunes of “For the First Time” existed have been turned into nigh operatic soundscapes.
The results are marvelously varied. “Bread Song” is built on swelling strings. “Good Will Hunting” is part post-rock with clean guitars and part interludes of experimental jazz. And “Haldern” could have been a contemplative, and obviously experimental, number from a musical. On this front, though, the two anchors are the closing tunes: the nine-minute “Snow Globes” and the twelve-minute “Basketball Shoes”. Naturally helped by their length, these masterworks take the orchestral capacity of Black Country, New Road to eye-popping extremes. “Snow Globes” holds a long voiceless opening and eventually moves into a refrain that is sung in loop while the instrumentation, highlighted by loud crashing drums that threaten to suffocate the beauty of the melody, grows more frantic by the minute. As for “Basketball Shoes”, the closer is a gripping epic where jazz, classical music, post-rock, and spasms of noise combine to stitch together various phases that paint a dramatic and melancholic picture.
Skeptics may claim that, ultimately, what Black Country, New Road has done with “Ants From Up There” is throw some Arcade Fire into their Slint, as specially when the album goes anthemic, it is easy to think of what the Canadian group concocted early in the millennium. But this is clearly a different beast altogether, one that merges the sentimental indie of “Funeral”, the uncomfortable coldness of “Spiderland”, and the band’s own desire to experiment. And the result is absolutely magnanimous: besides not having a single cut that falls below greatness, “Ants From Up There” pushes the boundaries of rock music with impeccable taste. It is aware of the experimental tendencies of the present, it does not discard the valuable music that was made in the past, and it looks to the future by joining the powers of seven individuals who are not afraid to freely create music they enjoy without worrying about stylistic or creative frontiers.