Black Country, New Road – Ants From Up There
Baroque Pop | Post Punk | Post Rock
When I find myself talking to people who don’t really engage with new music, one of the most commonly cited reasons for their disinterest is that everything feels like one homogenous mass. Instead of getting swept up with distinct movements, something that serves to define an era, it’s just everything at once, one big jumbled buffet of content all vying for your attention. It’s a critique I completely understand, as such movements, with artists walking a shared path and gathering devoted fans along the way, can make you feel part of something greater. The 60s had their psychedelica, 70s had disco, 80s had new wave and the new romantics, the 90s had grunge and Britpop, to name just a few. And it’s true, that for at least the past decade there have been no comparable movements within the UK music scene, no shared creative vein generating buzz and attention.
That is, until the past couple of years, which has seen the emergence of an ever-growing new wave of post punk. Bands like Black Midi, Squid, Shame, Wet Leg, Yard Act, and Dry Cleaning (with more acts joining the charge seemingly every few months) have been at the forefront of the music press, gathering a few album of the year nods, dominating nominations for the last couple of Mercury Prizes, and slowly but surely drifting into the public consciousness. They’ve also been noticeably absent from Belwood Music.
On paper this movement should have been right up my street – the sprawling runtimes and expansive arrangements, the dark politically charged undertones, the intricacy and ambition at work. In practice however, every new shining light of the scene that I’ve decided to check out has only proceeded to rub me up the wrong way. Songs that feel disjointed and directionless, spoken word vocals lacking any expression, overly chaotic passages that lose all sense of musicality, and nonsensical stream of consciousness lyrics so pretentious they make even the worst excesses of my prog collection look restrained. I keep trying, keep testing the water with each hyped up new release, as I’d love nothing more than to be swept up in a new movement, but I’m just not hearing the same things everyone else seems to be. It’s like being the only one not in on the joke when everyone else is in hysterics.
I’m finally laughing along when it comes to Ants From Up There, although that’s in part because it sounds like none of the other releases I’ve heard from the scene. Out of nowhere Black Country, New Road sound like a brand new band. There’s so much more patience and pay-off when it comes to the arrangements this time around. Their sophomore record is a slow dreamy embrace that swells and consumes you like the rising tide; quiet and reflective, with a strong emphasis on warm smooth jazz sounds. It’s an album packed with stunning slow burners which gradually unfurl to share their splendour, perhaps none more so than the spiritual heart that is ‘Concorde’, and one where every climax is worth the wait. The moments of cacophonous chaos that were often the norm on For The First Time are here reserved as a well earned reward. Each brief look into the torrent, like the fantastic frenetic drum work on ‘Snow Globes’, proves that sometimes the finer things are best dished out in small doses.
The bleak angular riffs and undercurrent of disillusionment that’s so been prevalent among BCNR and their contemporaries is almost absent here. Instead of blanking out the world, Ants is a record that is proud to feel. There are no discordant passages that exist just to be contrary, instead the whole band comes together to create rich textured soundscapes simply buzzing with life. On tracks like ‘Bread Song’ and ‘Mark’s Theme’ it manifests as a tranquil, almost spiritual experience reminiscent of Talk Talk. While on the frenetic violin driven chorus of ‘Chaos Space Marine’, and the triumphant sing-along that closes ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’, BCNR evoke early Arcade Fire better than any other band that springs to mind. The uplifting streak in the band’s arrangements is one of the two unifying threads that makes this a collection of songs that truly belong together.
The second thread lies in the lyricism, as at it’s heart Ants is a break-up record. One centred on yearning; occasionally sinking into self pity, but more often reaching skyward to the unobtainable and clinging on for dear life refusing to admit defeat even as it slips through your fingers. The chorus of ‘Concorde’ describing going to desperate lengths for a mere glimpse of a love so far out of reach (“And you, like Concorde, I came, a gentlе hill racer, I was breathless upon еvery mountain, Just to look for your light”). The album feels like a journey, a process of dealing with insecurities and past mistakes, and in doing so it gives the band a much needed star to steer by. Though there are still some curious turns of phrase, the ideas contained within have a clear path and meaning, rather than random thoughts bouncing around haphazardly like a Roomba. Not only are Isaac Wood’s words carrying far more meaning, they’re also delivered with much greater fire and passion, particularly towards the end of the blistering epic closer ‘Basketball Shoes’.
I entered this record expecting to be let down again, and yet I left having enjoyed every minute of it. If only this was the norm for the scene and not such a striking outlier, I would have latched on to this new movement wholeheartedly. Sadly, if anything, this album is lightning in a bottle. With frontman Isaac Wood announcing his departure mere days before the release, Ants From Up There acts as a snapshot of a fleeting moment in time before the band shift their style yet again. In many ways it’s an album reminiscent of the Concorde which it so often references; though flawed, it is a thing of beauty, a marvel of inventiveness and ambition, and we may never see its like again.