ALBUM REVIEW: ANTS FROM UP THERE
BY BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD
WRITTEN BY EMILIA WISNIEWSKI
MAY 6, 2022
After their critically acclaimed debut album For the First Time in 2021, English rock band Black Country, New Road (BC,NR) was hailed for their unconventional but refreshing sound. The band borrows their style from many genres—from post-rock to jazz to klezmer—and were compared to artists like Black Midi or Slint. Eyes were now on the group and their next move.
They took no time to release their first single for an upcoming project. The track was “Chaos Space Marine,” which already sounded like a departure from the sound that the band harbored in their debut. Fans were ecstatic.
Three more singles were released in the course of a few months and the release date for BC,NR’s sophomore album, Ants From Up There, was set for February 4th, 2022. Fans and critics alike were stoked to see what the band put together. But, with the end of January came some heartbreaking news from lead singer and frontman, Isaac Wood.
“I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid too,” Wood wrote in a statement on the band’s Twitter page. He announced his departure from the group, stating in vague terms that he has not been feeling well and that it has made it hard to perform. This was mere days before the release of Ants From Up There. Fans were conflicted.
What did this mean for the future of BC,NR? In that same post, the band made it clear that they would continue with the remaining six members, but what that would look like without Wood’s unique voice and harrowing lyricism is unknown.
Nevertheless, people were compassionate and understanding and were looking forward to the release of the album. February 4 came, and the project was simply beyond.
The first track on the album, aptly titled “Intro,” is a short instrumental that does a good job of introducing the new style that BC,NR wants to go for in this project by showcasing a plethora of instruments that blend jazz and rock together in a pleasant way.
“Chaos Space Marine” plays straight after. Regarding the track, bass guitarist Tyler Hyde said in an interview with Apple Music, “we allowed ourselves to get out all the stupid, funny joke style of playing…It’s our silly song. It’s a voyage. It’s a sea shanty. It’s a space trip.” The song is definitely a fun ballad, with a lot of the instrumentation from “Intro” carrying over in a much more bombastic way. Wood makes his first appearance on the album, with his vocals and the backing music doing a dance together. It winds down in the latter half, bringing the listener into “Concorde.”
A slight shift from the previous two tracks, “Concorde” provides a stripped beat in the beginning, eventually building up with each second that progresses. This track also showcases Wood’s poignant and masterful lyricism, with lines like “And you, like Concorde / I came, a gentle hill racer / I was breathless up on every mountain / Just to look for your light.” The theme of the song is beautifully summed up with these lyrics; a longing for a person that may no longer be in Wood’s life, but he would still go through daring lengths just to see a glimpse of them.
Then comes the track “Bread Song,” a solemn track that reflects Wood’s insecurities. Somewhat like “Concorde,” the instrumentals build throughout the track and hit a climax as it nears the chorus. But, it mostly keeps the morose tone throughout the song, especially when hearing Wood’s lyrics, which are swollen with meaning within its silly analogy (“Oh, darling, I / I never felt the crumbs until you said / ‘This place is not for any man / Nor particles of bread’”).
Afterwards is the song “Good Will Hunting,” which returns to the playful sounds while introducing more interesting musical elements to the song, like the synthesizers. Though, it still has some tragic lyrics that appears to be a running theme in the album. “It’s just been a weekend / But in my mind / We summer in France / With our genius daughters now,” refers to the romanticization or fictionalization of a person that he barely knows.
“Haldern” comes next. A mix of reserved guitars, piano and saxophone open the track that eventually bloom into a grandiose blend of sound. Wood starts the song with some bleak lyrics, “Ignore the hole I’ve dug again / It’s just for the evening / I never wanted you to see that much / Of the bodies down there beneath me,” which encapsulates the feeling of isolation and vulnerability so well.
The instrumental “Mark’s Theme” is an ode to saxophone and flute player Lewis Evans’ late uncle, a big fan of the band, who passed away in 2021 from COVID-19. The song starts with Evans doing a saxophone solo, then joined with piano in the second half that works beautifully together.
The song “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” plays after and it’s definitely a big highlight in the project. What’s most striking about the song is the emotion that’s clearly expressed through Wood’s wide vocal range and voice cracks. Wood yells “I’ll praise the Lord, burn my house / I get lost, I freak out / You come home and hold me tight / As if it never happened at all” that documents the dependency he craves.
“Snow Globes” comes next, and the whole journey of the song can be visualized as a steep hill: the plucks of the guitar strings at the start, the addition of the saxophone and violin soon after, and finally the asynchronous and monstrous drums, played by drummer Charlie Wayne. It forefronts the track with Wood’s screaming in the background. Then, the song deconstructs back down to the guitars. It’s a song that grows on the listener, and a bold departure from the rest of the project.
Finally, the 12-minute-long closer “Basketball Shoes” finishes the album. The length is daunting, but there couldn’t be a more perfect track to end an already incredible album. The song itself goes through very distinct phases sound-wise, but Wood becomes his most vulnerable all throughout: delving into childhood memories, continuing sadness (“So if you see me looking strange with a fresh style / I'm still not feeling that great”) and, of course, past romantic relationships. It encompasses all the themes of the album in a final hoo-rah.
This album is Wood’s painful expression of heartbreak and trying to move on, unabashedly putting his heart on his sleeve. It’s the sound of nostalgia and childhood with the words of reality and uncertainty. The journey the album goes through is one that the listener can easily empathize with. It’s tragic. It’s raw.
Pitchfork rated the album 8.4. Album of the Year scored it a 89. Metacritic gave it a 92. The project was highly praised among fans and critics, who also recognized the band’s unguarded message. It also ranked slightly higher than For the First Time across the board.
Black Country, New Road’s contributions to experimental rock are large despite their short time in the scene. With Wood’s departure, it will be interesting yet exciting to see what they do next in this strange phase of their, hopefully, triumphant and ground-breaking history. You can listen to Ants From Up There on Spotify and Apple Music.