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Grand Valediction: Black Country, New Road's Ants From Up There
Cal Cashin , February 9th, 2022 09:53

Cal Cashin celebrates what is likely to be the final – perfect – statement from a band who were too mercurial and dynamic for the music industry to keep pace with

On 4 Feb 2019, South London scene documentarian Lou Smith uploaded his most popular video to date, Black Country, New Road live at the Windmill. Independent Venue Week 2019 to YouTube. The handheld footage captured the raucous infancy of one of Britain’s most treasured experimental ensembles, at their ruinous best. It has since garnered a viewership well into six figures, and garnered an online community of fans grateful that Smith chose to capture the band for all eternity on that night.

I was there; the worlds of post punk, and free jazz collided and brilliancy unfurled in front of my face. These early live shows bore in me a love so deep that Black Country, New Road would always be mas que un band.

Early 2019 was a big time for London-based art-rock band Black, Country New Road. January saw the band release their debut single ‘Athen's, France’ on Speedy Wunderground to rapturous acclaim. Contained within its ambitious six minute runtime were a barbed fusion of Midwestern post rock with explosive brass cacophonies. The frenzied and jazz-trained virtuosity of violinist Georgia Ellery and saxophonist Lewis Evans earmarked the group as a serious prospect, whilst a muscular rhythm section put them immediately up there with the very best.

Frontman Isaac Wood’s lyrics were modernist cut-ups, reference-strewn vignettes of anxiety and insecurity. Littered with earworm turns of phrase, he delivered his words spoken cold and deadpan.

At this point in their career, the band were such a fully formed artistic proposition that they could have recorded a smash album there and then… but they didn’t.

Instead, they bided their time, and didn’t release For The First Time until 5 February 2021. Whilst full of amazing songs and wonderful performances, there was something about it that never quite convinced me like the live shows before, or since. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was then, but as time goes on, it has become obvious. Black Country, New Road are a highly volatile group, a band in such a state of flux that they evolve unthinking faster than the record industry can keep up with. By the time of their debut album, they had grown apathetic to the jazz sadism and angular sprechgesang of the early material, and as a result, For The First Time feels slightly disjointed.

The band from Lou Smith’s YouTube video no longer existed, undergoing one evolution after another in quick succession, until they were rendered unrecognisable. Only ‘Track X’, from For The First Time appeared in the band’s 2021 release day livestream, a largely acoustic affair that saw Isaac Wood’s spoken word vocals entirely replaced by a delicate singing voice. A great vowel shift that saw his upper middle class British voice take a turn for 00s Pitchfork Americanism. A stark departure? A swift evolution? Lord knows, but by the time live music returned to stages mid-last year, they’d stopped playing ‘Sunglasses’ and started playing ‘Mamma Mia’.

Black Country, New Road’s second studio album, Ants From Up There came out on Friday 4 February, exactly three years after that video of the Windmill gig was published. Recorded over a short period of time in Caulkhead country, it’s very much a cohesive album that succeeds in creating a vibrant and escapist soundworld.

Musically, Ants From Up There is a world away from the heady days of the band’s hedonistic early Windmill shows. The well-documented influence of Slint has completely vanished from their music, and the taut musical hellstorms have evaporated into pastoral acoustic peregrinations. The album’s palette draws from a less fashionable range of US indie, minimalism and chamber pop – the influence of Arcade Fire, Isaac Wood’s favourite band, continues to grow with every passing second, whilst John Cale and Scott Walker cast long shadows over everything.

But perhaps the most revelatory shift is that Ants From Up There sees the death of Black Country, New Road, entirely. At least, that is, as we know them. Frontman Isaac Wood last week announced that he would be stepping away from the band, to focus on his mental wellbeing. In a statement, the singer said: “I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid too. And I have tried to make this not true but it is the kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it hard to play guitar and sing at the same time. Together we have been writing songs and then performing them, which at times has been an incredible doing, but more now everything happens that I am feeling not so great and it means from now I won’t be a member of the group anymore… To be clear: this is completely in spite of six of the greatest people I know, who were and are wonderful in a sparkling way.”

Black Country, New Road’s remaining members have made it very clear that they intend to carry on as a six-piece, but they will no longer play old material out of respect for Wood. It seemed an amicable break up, and we can only hope that time away from the limelight will treat Isaac kindly. It is clear, however, that at some point Wood’s position as frontman had become more of a burden to him than something he enjoyed.

So whilst we can expect more Black Country, New Road songs at some point in the future, the band that released For The First Time last year, and Ants From Up There on Friday ceases to be. We won’t see the group again until they’ve undergone a pretty large scale metamorphosis.

And that leaves Ants From Up There in a bit of a weird place. It is an elegy for the band we know as Black Country, New Road. Isaac’s long goodbye. A Funeral.

It is a magnificent album. It is one of the most transportative and beautiful albums of its kind I have ever heard. There is enough to endlessly digest, and it's safe to say there’s not really any point right now in wondering what is next for BC,NR – for now, they leave us with a very full plate.

It would be reductive to say that Ants is a bit of an Isaac Wood solo record – it isn’t.

The band’s other musicians have moments where they really shine, and deserve singling out. Charlie Wayne’s tempestuous drumming on ‘Snow Globes’ is astounding, while May Kershaw’s trickling romantic piano and Lewis Evans’ whimsical flute on ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’ are breathtaking in their beauty. Anyone who has experienced the band live before, of course, knows the vital importance of each member in constructing the group’s unique sound.

For large swathes of the album, their immense musicianship serves to heighten the focus on Wood’s centrepiece lyrics, rich narrative affairs that flow from track to track. It very much feels like his swansong. The very idea of what Black Country, New Road are in this exact moment feels wedded to Isaac Wood as a vocalist.

Wood’s lyrics are both furiously personal and wonderfully surreal, as he utilises his idiosyncratic brand of stylised analogies to convey his deepest feelings in verse – his lyrics are cryptic, and whilst an English Lit A-Level analysis of his methods isn’t particularly vital, they are endlessly enthralling.

In light of Wood’s toils, Ants can be a harrowing and hollowing listen. Ants contains a series of snapshots of failing relationships. The relationships in Wood’s lyrics are often toxic and one-sided, as the singer grapples with relationships in which his love isn’t returned, his dependency isn’t matched. He sings: “Okay, well I just woke up/ and you already don’t care/ that I tried my best to hold you/ through the headset that you wear,” on ‘Bread Song’, painting an all-too-lifelike picture of an apathetic partner atop a crawling instrumental canvas that wouldn’t feel too out of place on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.

It’s possible – if not 100% accurate – to interpret his lyrics now as being analogies to the breakup of the band in its current incarnation. On ‘Snow Globes’ and ‘Basketball Shoes’ (and ‘Opus’ from the debut, as well), he sings of a “clamp”, a restrictive force in his lyrical universe. On the former especially, Wood’s softly sung vocals sound empty and terrified as he sings “must let the clamp do what the clamp does best” atop a rising Mogwai-esque instrumental. Is the band “the clamp”? In a recent interview with Paste, guitarist Luke Mark said that Isaac is in a much better place since deciding to leave BC,NR, so intrinsically bound were his issues to performing with the band.

"Your generous loan, your crippling interest", the last couplet on the album’s closer 'Basketball Shoes', reads to me very much like a direct address to the band’s fanbase. An acknowledgement that while the interest in the band has been gratefully received, it is taking its toll on the singer. The last refrain of 'The Place Where He Inserted the Blade', too hints at a discomfort with people’s lofty expectations, as Wood exclaims: "Just show me the fifth or the cadence you want me to play."

Wood, however, is far from a maudlin caricature; Zillenial Elliott Smith he is not. For all of the heartbreak on Ants there are moments of eternal optimism and a great appreciation of the world around him. ‘Good Will Hunting’, the album’s great waltzing pop hit, is a great example of this. The second verse is simply awe-inspiring, a misty-eyed and Wes Anderson film appropriate take on 'I’d Do Anything For Love', which Wood youthfully warbles:

“And if we’re on a burnin' starship
The escape pods filled with your friends
Your childhood film photos
There's no room for me to go
Oh, I'd wait there
Float with the wreckage
Fashion a long sword
Traverse the Milky Way
Tryna get home to you
And you bring some piece of the stars”

Meanwhile, the closer ‘Basketball Shoes’ is a thirteen minute monolith, and undoubtedly the best song the band have recorded to date. It begins with Wood’s introverted mumblings of clamps and Concordes atop meditative saxophone, before sprawling into something far more cathartic. A symphony of hormones and impulses, it’s the whole album in microcosm. A la the college dorm room anthems of Jeff Rosenstock, the mid-section sees Wood blurt out: “And I haven’t felt this way, in, like, ever!/ Pick your hair off my sweater/ Drown in me, like boyfriend jeans,” before the band brace themselves for the ecstatic crescendo of the outro – in itself, a staggering piece of music, as the whole band pummel their instruments to reach the kind of euphoric climax that Godspeed You! Black Emperor have spent their careers dreaming of. Grand valediction.

The joy, the lifeblood fulfilment of listening to this record will, however, one day turn bittersweet, as the band responsible for it seem unlikely to return as we know them. These songs will never again be fleshed out in South London pubs, provincial concert halls, or European fields. Of course that is a shame, but it is certainly good to end this phase of the band’s existence on such a high.

Ants From Up There then, perhaps feels all the more special, because it captures the essence eternal of this very volatile art rock group right at the absolute point of evaporation.

Dr. Zoidberg : That stench. That heavenly stench!
[Eats all the anchovies]
Dr. Zoidberg : More. More.
Phillip J. Fry : There aren't any more, and there never will be.
Dr. Zoidberg : [advances menacingly] More! More! More!
(From: Futurama S1E6: ‘A Fishful of Dollars’)

Ants From Up There is out now via Ninja Tune