By Christian Hince | March 8, 2022
Of the numerous bands that emerged from the umbrella of U.K. post-punk in the last several years, no group sticks out quite like Black Country, New Road.
The seven-piece garnered acclaim almost immediately with their first two singles in 2019. Displaying an eclectic blend of classically refined musicianship and post punk edge, their praise only multiplied upon the release of their February 2021 debut album, For the first time.(Having emerged in 2019 with two singles as a hodge-podge of jazz/classical level musicianship with an aggressive, post-punk edge, the seven-piece garnered acclaim which only multiplied upon the release of their February 2021 debut album, For the first time.) With their second record out, Ants From Up There, BCNR’s reputation for creative mastery lives through with a project described by the group’s saxophonist as “more palatable.”
The band has moved on from being the world’s “second-best Slint tribute act.” Discordant songwriting are for sentimental melodies, with band leader Isaac Wood trading in spoken-word-esque delivery for true singing. Wood also steers his once abstract lyrical focus towards something more emotionally straightforward.
Ants From Up There also marks the end of the road for Isaac Wood as the voice of the collective. He announced his departure four days prior to the album’s February 4 release, citing a “kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it hard to play guitar and sing at the same time.”
On this swan song effort for the original BCNR lineup, the group wasted no time getting started. Bright arpeggios build during “Intro” before the track ends after just 54 seconds. This leads into the album’s first single, “Chaos Space Marine,” a playful three-and-a-half minute baroque pop tune that builds to an explosive finale. A very short track by BCNR standards, references to the tabletop fantasy game Warhammer 40k decorate this vibrant track which Wood once called “the best” song the band had ever written.
The next track, the waltzy “Concorde” formally introduces the album’s theme: breakup. For this, Wood chooses an interesting analogy for his lost partner: The Concorde, a passenger plane that was in use for 27 years before its discontinuation in 2003. The aircraft’s run ended after a 109-casualty takeoff disaster and years of financial unviability.
Isaac’s romance in an emotional sense is just like the commercial liner. It’s costly, (), lays a trail of wreckage, and leaves him grounded as the object of his great care and emotional security disappears off into the distance. “And then Isaac will suffer, Concorde will fly,” Wood sang ahead of the song’s third verse. Like most songs on the record, “Concorde” is patient, leaning into a softer side before the band’s full orchestration fronted by Wood’s stricken vocals create an explosive, moving finale.
In the fifth track “Good Will Hunting,” Isaac leans on his signature tendency for pop culture references when singing about his partner having “Billie Eilish style” over cheery synths and twinkly guitars. He details romantic fantasies and talks about her “going to Berlin for a little while,” continuing the album’s theme of travel and departure. However, in the context of Ants From Up There, it’s clear that this change is permanent. The guitars erupt with noisy angst, and his denial of the relationship’s end is broadcasted through an anguished howl.
Up next, “Haldern” tackles the same subject matter and sadness as the rest despite being conceived far before the release of either BCNR album. Originally performed in August 2020, saxophone and violin arpeggiate around heartbreaking lines such as “you are the only one I’ve known who broke the world so quietly” until the song’s building tension bursts open with glittering piano lines and crashing drums.
Though, not all songs are as loud with how they build and change. The fourth track “Bread Song” ambiently enters the band’s cast instrument by instrument for the first three minutes as Wood sings in a whimper about the one-sided nature of his love affair. “Okay, well I just woke up, and you already don’t care,” he comments as the track begins. Drums in the second half of the song comprise a more active soundscape which sets the scene for Wood as he finishes exploring the misplaced vulnerability represented by crumbs of “toast in my bed.”
There’s also the soft jazz instrumental “Mark’s Theme,” saxophonist Lewis Evans’ late uncle who passed away from COVID in early 2021. The sax-centric piece sits a bit under three minutes and proves that Ants From Up There is a story about loss for anybody, not just Isaac Wood.
It also divides the rest of the record from its behemoth final three tracks, which are the album’s longest.
First up is “Show Me The Place Where He Inserted The Blade,” a tender seven-minute ballad about trauma and the codependency of Wood’s relationship. A warm flute-led arrangement is the backdrop for lyrics about his impassioned level of commitment, with Wood singing “every time I try to make lunch for anyone else, in my head I end up dreaming of you.” This track reinforces the sad reality covered in “Bread Song,” as his genuine romantic feelings and the song’s bright tone are all for naught in the end. “Show me where to tie the other end of this chain,” yells Wood before a grandiose finale that rings of “Hey Jude.”
“Snow Globes” is patient and melancholy, with a simple guitar riff gradually being accompanied by the band’s full instrumentation over the song’s first three minutes. While thematic straightforwardness is something that generally sets Ants From Up There apart from For the first time, Wood’s lyrics arguably are at their vaguest on this track. “We must let the clamp do what the clamp does best,” he sings, alluding to a metaphor for a vague negative feeling used on previous BCNR songs.
Urgency builds as Wood’s abstraction over the character of Henry is reduced to a single plea, “oh, god of weather, Henry knows, snow globes don’t shake on their own.” As the drums devolve into chaos, overpowering both Wood and the rest of the band, his pleas turn into anguished and desperate screams. The song calms down for its finish, but there’s a sense that whatever emotional damage “Snow Globes” fights against has already been done.
The closing “Basketball Shoes” picks up on the same sad note “Snow Globes” finishes on, also patiently adding instrumentation over a wordless first three minutes. The earliest written track on the album, it’s both the record’s thesis statement and creative spawn point.
“It’s the whole basis and blueprint for the album,” said Wood.
The first verse plays like a diary entry, as he reflects on his breakup and the subsequent feelings. Motifs used in “Concorde” and “The Place Where Inserted The Blade” are apparent with Wood singing “Concorde flies in my room, tears the house to shreds,” and “I’m feeling kind of normal with a packed lunch.”
The much more upbeat math rock-y second section is a little more ambiguous but also focuses on the troubled nature of Wood’s romance as well as his general unhappiness. “And the clamp is a cracked smile cheek, and it tortures me,” he sings, continuing the track’s application of core motifs.
The song’s third and last use of the main transition melody is deservedly profound with soaring guitar work and angelic vocals to precede the track’s finale. The concluding section is loud, melodic, and anthemic, fittingly so as Wood airs his final anguished screams with Black Country, New Road. “Oh, your generous loan to me, your crippling interest,” he sings as the 12-and-a-half-minute epic comes to a close.
With emotional focal points such as “Basketball Shoes”, “Snow Globes”, and “Haldern” being conceived well ahead of this project’s release, it’s hard to know how much of Ants From Up There is a goodbye note from Isaac Wood as the band leader. Lines such as “so if you see me looking strange with a fresh style I’m still not feeling that great” would have a much clearer connotation to his departure if they weren’t written well before BCNR released a single album.
However, the fact that each song on the project was released in the form it was shows that each thought on each song stayed genuine and meant something to Wood. It’s clearly a record about breakup, about separation, and about change, something the rest of Black Country, New Road will deal through with their leader stepping away just as the world’s been introduced to his musical gifts.
Each song on Black Country, New Road’s second effort has something brilliant and beautiful to offer. While this brilliance may not be the same in their future, Ants From Up There gives us a final chance to appreciate the mastery of Isaac Wood as the band’s voice and a representation of hopefully years of greatness from the wonderful cast of musicians which remains.