Album: Black Country, New Road – For the First Time review

by Jowan Mead

First, a primer for the woefully uninitiated: Black Country, New Road (BC, NR) is a seven piece rock outfit that formed in 2018 and possesses roots in middle-class Cambridgeshire. They exist within an oft-scrutinised guitar music scene that orbits The Windmill in Brixton, South London, rubbing shoulders with BBC 6Music post-punk darlings’ Squid and Black Midi

While they share a lot of stylistic flair with these contemporaries, BC, NR’s unique selling point lies in their expansive orchestral sound – one which incorporates elements of klezmer with angular guitars and sardonic spoken-word lyrics courtesy of frontman, Isaac Wood.

Following a string of wildly popular singles, For the first time is the band’s debut record on Ninja Tune – a label typically associated with pioneering acid jazz and trip-hop in the 90s. The oddity of the album’s housing just so happens to betray its individuality: For the first time is a truly rare collection of viciously beautiful songs.

The record opens with Instrumental – a wordlessly dramatic overture that serves to establish each member of the band’s place in the world. Drummer, Charlie Wayne, ushers in the chaos through a consistently manic tom groove, and, one by one, BC, NR’s individual talents become self-evident. The septet’s orchestral corner (Georgia Ellery on violin and Lewis Evans on saxophone) are seasoned klezmer musicians, and menacingly convey the genre’s distinctive commotion alongside layered guitar and synthesiser riffs. The power of the cohesive unit is clear – coiling into itself to deliver a tightly wound atmosphere that almost trips over itself in the race to the track’s climax.

 In the wake of this kicked-down door, For the first time peels out into the band’s debut single Athens, France redux, one of two previously released tracks that wear new takes for this collection. Given the dryly crawling riff that opens the song, comparisons to math-rock progenitors Slint are inevitable. Wood knows this, wryly and consistently self-aware, and later even decries himself as a member of the ‘world’s second best Slint tribute act’ in adjacent track Science Fair. It’s an unfairly narrow comparison. Though Athens, France’s opening notes evoke a straight-time, avalanching Nosferatu Man, the band’s structural adventurousness sets them apart from their candidly unwrapped influences. The air ripples around the performance, tension maintained by distant string trills and dark chords, even when the track is at its most subdued.

Things eventually settle: Athens, France resolves itself with a consistent guitar arpeggio that’s reharmonised by drawn-out sax into a gorgeously steady chord progression that (surprisingly) evokes American Football more effectively than any nth-wave emo revival band. It’s a much softer approach to the song’s climax than the original take, and one that sets up Science Fair admirably.

After breaking themselves down, BC, NR reconstitute the feeling slowly.

Science Fair as a song proper is prefaced by a loose-cannon whirlwind of distortion and harmonics that soon gives way to the true push-pull groove of the song; a solid foundation that grounds the record’s most dissonant and foreboding piece. A screaming arrangement in the key of dread augments Wood’s narrative – a collection of near-impenetrably Lynchian vignettes. Scenes in the titular Cambridge Science Fair and Cirque de Soleil evoke feelings of false connection and nihilistic freedom. A mention of ‘cola stains on my best white shirt’ slips out a little taste of awkwardly empathetic unsightliness that serves to ground the feeling in reality.

 Moments like the aforementioned lyric, and the entirety of the next track, showcase Wood’s poetry at its most powerful. Sunglasses is an admirable subversion of conventional bitter breakup prose: mentions of Nutri-Bullets and an ornery-yet-benefactory father evoke John K. Samson to express disillusionment with upper-middle class trappings and cold domestic intimacy. There’s even a little nod to Socratic thinking, Wood wailing ‘I’m so ignorant now with all that I’ve learned,’ over an anthemic stanza that segues into another dissonant collapse. Ultimately, the panicked and conversational words and erratic instrumentation work synergistically. Sunglasses is almost ten minutes long, but never drags at all, soaring up and down between stabbingly poignant concepts with ease – ascending into a fervour that increasingly grips Wood’s performance.

After such a vulgar display of power, Track X showcases another side of BC, NR – one that they’ve hinted is closer to their future endeavours. Percussionless and incessantly tender, focus is drawn to the band’s collective counterpoint and a sweetly vocalised refrain while Wood reels through contemplative mentions of his nearest and dearest. It’s a welcome respite prior to For the first time’s final statement, Opus.

Black Country, New Road are frequently self-referential, and Opus as a closer is a great example. The klezmer motif introduced in Instrumental is re-introduced in the most danceable moments of the album, – a take on post-post-punk raised to new heights. Wood oozes on the impermanence of his artistic statement: ‘what we built out of Black Country ground’ and that which ‘must fall to the rising flames.’ He sagely clams up and lets the guitars do the talking in Opus’ most rapid minutes, instead choosing to waltz us out by way of the song’s evocatively steady bars.

A separate review could focus on Wood’s talents as a post-modern observational lyricist and a Byrne-esque character actor alone, but it would be unfair to the rest of the band. From bassist Tyler Hyde’s steady undertow to guitarist Luke Mark’s jagged interjections, the group works in perfectly honed sync. New versions of established compositions carry their own weight with ease, while the truly fresh pieces on For the first time further stake Black Country, New Road’s claim as true artists and scintillating creatives within the post-punk zeitgeist.

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