Black Country, New Road’s Ants from Up There feels like a landmark moment in contemporary British alternative rock music. The February 4 release, on the label Ninja Tune, follows the band’s Mercury Prize-nominated debut For the First Time (2021) and debuted just four days after frontman Isaac Wood left the seven-piece band. Perhaps inevitably, Ants from Up There is about endings and escapes; the album mines these themes for their nuance and complexity as dynamically as the production juggles a variety of instruments and sonic textures. Both the sum and its parts are essential in terms of theme and sound. Ants from Up There feels like a culmination of a discernible four-year movement within the alternative rock scene in the British capital. Thanks to residencies at the influential venue The Windmill, London is the city where Black Country, New Road made a name for themselves after meeting in Cambridgeshire, justifying their position within the city’s music scene.
After the debut and sophomore albums by Shame and Goat Girl, along with Dry Cleaning’s 2021 release New Long Leg and two albums by Black Midi, 2022 seemed like an opportune pause for the wave of young London bands (who, except for Dry Cleaning, all have connections to The Windmill). Then Black Country, New Road released Ants from Up There, almost exactly a year to the day since their first entry into this mini back catalogue of releases. The band’s second album feels like a crowning moment for the music scene, as it expands and diversifies the styles and genres that characterize it — post-punk, psychedelic rock and jazz fusion — by adding art rock, chamber pop and folk to the sonic mixing pot. Ants from Up There’s subject of escapes can be justified by the band writing it during lockdown, but the topic of endings cannot help but now be associated with Wood’s departure and the group’s uncertain future. These themes subvert the boundless energy and prolific creativity that otherwise define the existing music scene, which is defined by a regular flow of music that is fast, chaotic and energetic. The movement has now been extended with a release that slows the tempo, calms the chaos and ends the current era of Black Country, New Road. Ants from Up There invites a meta-commentary on how it internalizes the idea of being a piece of a moment and a part of a scene, complete with the expectations of complicity, anxieties of responsibility and the difficulties of continuing a sound.
Black Country, New Road’s self-awareness is both of themselves and of their connections to other music, inside and outside of a specific London music scene. For the First Time references Kanye West on “Sunglasses” and fellow Windmill stalwarts Black Midi on “Track X.” Moving the goalposts, Ants from Up There’s “Good Will Hunting” references Billie Eilish, but an earlier track — the album’s lead single — “Chaos Space Marine” teases “Good Will Hunting” referencing Eilish. “Billie Eilish style / A Concorde will fly,” Wood sings, also nodding to next track Concorde” and establishing flight as a metaphor that recurs throughout Ants from Up There after first being raised by the album cover: a golden model airplane sealed in a small transparent bag, hanging on a wall hook. The self-referential in-jokes create an associative thread running throughout the album that expands to a connection with For the First Time, a connection which is often more implicit.
Like Black Country, New Road’s first album, the new one includes an opening “Instrumental,” which in this case runs for under a minute (compared to the first album’s five) and bleeds into the chord sequence of track two, “Chaos Space Marine.” For the First Time’s four tracks over six minutes long has become Ants from Up There’s five. The multi-part song trajectory resembling a jam, often initially introducing instruments one by one, is the first album’s trademark and carries over into the 2022 release.
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In Ants from Up There, Black Country, New Road subverts the first album’s formula and conforms to it. “Chaos Space Marine’” in particular trades the band’s signature melancholy post-punk for jaunty, David Bowie and Hunky Dory-esque piano rock. The initial optimism is contradicted by the finality of the lyrics, though: “So I’m leaving this body / And I’m never coming home again, yeah.” If the premise of escapism is appealing within the album’s narrative at this early stage, by the comparatively downtempo “Concorde” (track three) and “Bread Song” (track four), it is replaced with a beaten down realism. These songs, which were also released as singles ahead of the album drop, are instead deflated and defeated. “Concorde” begins with gentle folk guitar strums; “Bread Song”introduces itself with the line “Okay, well, I just woke up / And you already don’t care.” Even if there is humor in the latter song’s jokes about “eat[ing] toast in my bed,” this comedy is strained, reluctant and deadpan. Like “Science Fair” from For the First Time, “Bread Song” carries a palpable dread; the song builds its layered sonics gradually but with the sense that one never knows when the chord change will come, and where it will go.
The long, rambling account of an ostensible breakup in “Bread Song” (“I tried my best to hold you / Through the headset that you wear”) is a far cry from the exuberance of Wood’s lyrics in “Chaos Space Marine.” The longer the album goes on, the euphoria and fun of “Chaos Space Marine” is exposed as a masquerade that could not possibly be sustained –– its cries of “I’ll bury the hatchet” and “England is mine” (likely a Smiths reference) play as the kind of initial burst of “This is not so bad” and “I can find positives in this” that many have all become too used to seeing transformed into difficulty and despair during the global COVID-19 pandemic. This tonal negotiation fits the reality of Wood and the band’s situation while recording Ants from Up There. It’s the sound of loving what you are doing and finding beauty in it. When it is too difficult for you to do it any longer, the beauty is replaced with heartbreak.
“Good Will Hunting” — the midpoint of Ants from Up There — picks things up with a similar stop-start pace to “Chaos Space Marine.” The track persistently drives through its looped guitar refrain towards its choruses, with the help of backing vocals similar to those of Régine Chassagne (of Arcade Fire fame, a band that Black Country, New Road have cited as an influence on their second album, thanks to lockdown re-listens). “Good Will Hunting” is the album in miniature, defined by its unrelenting pursuit of an ending. In Ian Cohen’s Pitchfork review, he notes how Ants from Up There “plays like a slow burn to a triumphant finale,” but the album is perhaps better understood as a collection of finales divided by momentary resets.
After the instrumental track “Mark’s Theme,” Black Country, New Road’s cited influences shine through once again on “Haldern,” specifically in the sounds of its saxophone and piano which recall Sufjan Stevens’ “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” The pair of tracks stake a claim for the band being suited to make film scores, too, which has been suggested as a possible next project by its remaining members. “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” follows by beginning with an outro, as Black Country, New Road does with “Concorde” and “Bread Song” before the typical and familiar slow build through a lengthy runtime. By the eighth track, Wood’s aspirations for escape expressed on “Chaos Space Marine” have mutated into realizations that those aspirations were futile. He begins “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” with a whisper, inviting the listener to eavesdrop on the self-referential conversation (“You’re scared of a world where you’re needed”). This song exemplifies what is fundamentally an extension beyond Black Country, New Road’s typical sound, exploding into a rapturous chorus provoking the kind of singalong that might have seemed unfathomable given the elusive, playful lyrics on For the First Time. It also signals an active shift from Black Midi’s indecipherable, avant-garde vocals, Shame’s shouts, Goat Girl’s psychedelic impressionism and Dry Cleaning’s dedication to spoken word. There is a newfound embrace of pop accessibility and transparency in Black Country, New Road’s reinvigorated sound, demonstrating a conscious push of the boundaries they established for themselves with their first entry into the mini catalogue of British post-punk albums by these bands. Put more simply, the designation “post-punk” does not do their second album justice, which is defined by its active expansion of the genres they and the bands around them brought together between 2018 and 2021.
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Black Country, New Road’s position in the music scene is addressed in the soundscapes on Ants from Up There, but the reluctance to replace individuality with collectivism and be discussed on the terms of relationships with others is a pervasive thematic interest of the album, underpinning Wood’s lyrics. Perhaps the best symbol of this entrapment comes on track nine, “Snow Globes.” After a detuned opening riff with shades of the Pixies’ iconic “Where is My Mind?,” Wood sings of how “Snow globes don’t shake on their own,” pointing to lost autonomy and the idea of being susceptible to the control of others. Sonically, “Snow Globes” is also a fitting example of the negotiation between newness and repetition of refrains from the band’s previous album but also motifs and ideas that appear earlier on this one, as well as the mannerisms of this music scene in general. The meticulous formation of instruments on the sprawling nine-minute song folds into a progressive accumulation of them, isolating their individual roles before showing how they fit within the song as the instruments join for a crescendo. The newness comes with Charlie Wayne’s erratic drumming, which complicates the time signature of “Snow Globes” to exciting results.
The ground that Black Country, New Road covers within the space of individual songs, like the trajectory of Ants from Up There as a whole, highlights journeys of multiple stages. As Damien Morris suggests at The Guardian, the album is therefore “best heard in a single sitting.” These macro and micro journeys are sonically varied and structurally ambitious, whether occupying a crowded three-minute track or a more spacious 12-minute one, such as the album closer “Basketball Shoes.” Like other songs on Ants from Up There, this track was a staple at live shows on the For the First Time tour and works as a summation of the band’s early sound due to its emphasis on scope and scale, on different stages of a song and the multi-layered structure that it can be predicated on. The time stamps 5:36, 8:28 and 9:37 bring what could almost be the beginnings of new tracks on Ants from Up There, but they do not because Black Country, New Road are most interesting as a band that defies expectations. Even if one seems to understand the patterning, the rug is pulled with a song like “Chaos Space Marine.”
Equally, just as Black Country, New Road seemed to fit conveniently into the sonic trends and mutual genre interests of the current London alternative rock scene, they resist the collectivism by dropping Ants from Up There, which is entirely about desperately holding onto individuality and personal identity even if the world around the individual makes increasingly less sense. In the context of the band’s situation, holding on and persisting takes on a new meaning. Despite the endings and escapes of Black Country, New Road’s second album — the flights and summations — the bottom line is accentuated by the lyrics “We’re all working on ourselves / And we’re praying that the rest don’t mind how much we’ve changed.” Change is what we are left with when the sum and the parts cohere and reach an ending, when the plane finally lands and we find our luggage and leave the airport, when the music stops and we must confront the confusion and uncertainty of everyday silence.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a published short fiction and freelance film writer. He is also a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Recent and upcoming film publications include Bright Lights, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Luma Quarterly, and Off Screen.
Categories: 2022 Music Essays, Featured
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