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The Lead Review

Plague Island's Youth Division: For The First Time By Black Country, New Road
Cal Cashin , February 4th, 2021 09:23

Black Country, New Road are one of the most exciting bands in a standout London music scene, and this album is a candid portrait of where the band are at a few years into their existence, finds Cal Cashin

First impressions are seldom wrong. And when I saw Black Country, New Road for the first time, it was one such occasion. Autumn 2018, they towered over me from atop the 100 Club stage; equal parts bombast, terror and ecstasy. A eureka moment in real time. The demonic ensemble melded all the best parts of Pere Ubu and Albert Ayler, post-punk and klezmer, and did so while looking like a GAP advertising campaign. Everything was normal, and then it wasn’t.

Further live outings, in front of a growing circle of dedicated fans was confirmation of this. Something very special was happening. And not for the first time, it was happening mostly at the Brixton Windmill. Indeed, tQ editor John Doran, never a man to mince his words, not only shared my excitement, but dubbed them “the best (band) in the entire world”.

The London-via-Cambridgeshire band released debut single ‘Athens, France’ on Speedy Wunderground to rapturous applause in January 2019. A skewed ‘Nosferatu Man’ groove, cacophony of brass and strings, and the self-consciously post-modern internet-age lyrics of Isaac Wood; a mission statement: “I am a special one”. From the first note of their first song, this was a band destined for the very top.

We fast forward a couple of years to a very different time. It is the present day on Plague Island. After a slow, slow drip-feed of new music, Black Country, New Road’s debut album For the First Time is at last out this week. Black Country, New Road are one of the most exciting bands in a standout London music scene, and this album is a candid portrait of where the band are at a few years into their existence.

Just the six tracks in total, there is an air of familiarity to For the first time. Rather than a collection of new music, the band have recorded the best songs from their live set into one cohesive and satisfying package. (With the notable exception of ‘Track X’, which has been part of Wood’s solo live set as The Guest occasionally for some time.) Indeed, for the indoctrinated, this debut is low in surprises, but the songs are very sharp and done a great justice by the production. It’s rare that a band this noisy, an album where chaos reigns, is recorded with this much clarity. There are so many different musical ideas, and none of them get lost along the way.

A cohesive forty minute LP, For the first time inhabits a sonic world of its own. Older singles have been re-recorded, and live favourites are finally available on disc. ‘Athens, France’ has been re-recorded to have a looser feel, its tetchiness removed. Whilst ‘Sunglasses’ loses its muscular crescendo and “fuck me like you mean it” chorus in favour of an escalating mutant barn-dance outro.

Now a septet, with Luke Mark joining on second guitar, the band’s last couple of years have been characterised by a succession of curveballs as they grow in confidence and come of age. The band are caught constantly somewhere between epochal genius and ironic aesthetic left turns. Never before has an album this good been released with an album cover this crap.

Naturally, I was worried that walking the tightrope of musical bombast and acerbic commentary for the duration of a record wouldn’t stand up to the ecstasy of their live show, but these fears are largely unfounded. Whilst beneath the surface there is always intrigue, the euphoria of this band is never lost; during the lengthy and vigorous trademark instrumental meltdowns, everything simply feels right, cathartic even.

Everything that first hooked me on this band is on show, and perhaps that is what truly makes For the first time an ace listen. There is always a danger of this band disappearing up their own keister, but they stay too busy for this to happen. Brain-frying sax-violin-guitar jams take up most the runtime emphatically, and the intensity established on the ‘Instrumental’ opening track is kept up from start to finish; no cig breaks, no excuses, no prisoners. At the core, we have seven fantastic musicians – some trained classically, some self-taught – and as a consequence, they’re at their very best when the whole group put the pedal to the metal.

‘Opus’ has been the centre of their live show since their inception, and it’s a glorious closer here. An exercise in technical proficiency, the septet hurtle through a breathless end-times jazz breakdown at a crazy pace in absolute tandem. “Everybody’s coming up,” Wood cackles: “I guess I’m a little late to the party”. Terse riffs echo Fugazi, as Lewis Evans’ freewheeling sax oscillations reach their absolute pinnacle. It’s Coleman sucked through a time warp. Backwards.

Evans and violinist Georgia Ellery will rightly take a lot of instrumental plaudits once this album is released. Ellery’s playing is devilishly brilliant and brilliantly devilish, a world away from her so-called day job, fronting equally bold art-pop outfit Jockstrap. And indeed, there’s a moment on ‘Science Fair’ where Evans’ playing is so frenzied that it sounds like a swarm of wasps trying to escape from his saxophone, that might be among the best 10 seconds of music ever recorded. As skilled, jazz-trained musicians, with experience in klezmer orchestras and free jazz outfits, they are anomalous amongst young experimental musicians, and ridiculously good at what they do, but the rhythm section does a helluva job too. Every part of the machine works perfectly.

Bassist Tyler Hyde is the band’s cosmic heartbeat. The band are at their best when contorting themself around her chugging basslines, like on the scratchy intro to ‘Science Fair’ or the frantic ‘Instrumental’. Charlie Wayne’s drumming is propulsive, and May Kershaw’s keyboard trills add feverish intensity. Everyone really pulls their weight here.

So yes! In BC, NR we have an indomitable fourteen-legged-scronk machine still, but their palate of influences has broadened further still. At that first meeting in Soho, their music was quite squarely hitting the apex between 90s underground rock, free jazz and klezmer, but additional influences have begun to creep in, as the arch persona of infernal conductor Isaac Wood guides the music to stranger pastures than ever before.

Perhaps the most notable of these new influences are the unfashionable spectres of Win Butler and Father John Misty. While the last eighteen months has seen Wood uttering affirmations about his desire to simply turn BC, NR into Arcade Fire to any interviewer that’ll listen, this actually manifests on Side 2’s ‘Track X’. Evans’ hellfire sax blitzes are replaced by gentle flutters, whilst Isaac Wood actually sings, and harmonises with other band members. The end product is a straight up pastiche of Neon Bible with a bit of Glassworks thrown in for good measure. ‘Track X’ is the hairpin bend on an album of left turns. At first listen, it feels like an ill-advised misstep, but its immensely satisfying arrangement yields rewards upon repeat listens.

Amidst all the fantastic musical things that happen on this record, Isaac Wood is at the centre. He is the trequartista you can’t stop watching when the ball is long lost, a court jester sitting inexplicably in the throne. Performances so utterly magnetic, with his sprechgesang vocals a mix of paranoia and trenchancy, the wordsmith savant’s quips and monologues shape the group into something wholly novel. His richly experimental postmodern lyrics are so bold in their ambition that they charm even when they don’t necessarily come off.

‘Track X’ sees his most tender emotional moments on the album juxtaposed with a list of which bands his friends are in, whilst the first half of ‘Sunglasses’ is a richly voyeuristic, non-judgemental vignette of privilege. Dripping in the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, it is framed by the peculiarly dated opening line, “welcome to the best new six-part Danish crime drama”; ‘Sunglasses’ is probably Wood’s best moment on record as a writer, as “frail hands grip the nutri-bullet” and “things aren’t built like they used to be / the absolute pinnacle of British engineering”.

It’s easy to sit and point out the reference points for Black Country, New Road’s sound. But of course, Wood’s one step ahead of me already. “I could have left with my dignity intact,” Wood sings through gritted teeth on ‘Science Fair’: “and fled the stage with the world’s second best Slint tribute act.” As with any great band, it is easy to point out artists that are touchpoints for Black Country, New Road’s sound, but impossible to pick out anything they sound quite like.

There are echoes of the Louisville post-rock, post-hardcore, post-band that run through For the first time; something of the Spiderland in ‘Science Fair’s syncopated rhythms, and ‘Athens, France’s references to “rural American fairgrounds”. Whilst Slint’s unrelenting despair is replaced by gleeful irony, For the first time has a rural American gothic aura that few records possess. It feels like we’re days away from a press shot of the seven of them bobbing in the Utica Quarry water, smiling knowingly at the camera.

Alongside this distinctly American flavour – twee Americana colours ‘Track X’, the ghost of Slint haunts several cuts, and the taste of American Football lashes off ‘Sunglasses’’ intro – there are a lot of uniquely British things about Black Country, New Road. This is the detached and cynical chorus of Plague Island’s youth division. The portraits that Isaac Wood illustrates are very distinctly of the British middle classes, and the half-spoken delivery with which he paints them is almost the signature trope of British guitar music in the present day. Alongside contemporaries Black Midi, there is the feeling with this lot that a new generation of British guitar music is fledgling. Whilst For the first time might not quite be the perfect record, Black Country, New Road might be the perfect band.