Contemporary UK indie rock is in a strange place. The dominant post-punk sound popularized by the likes of Idles, Fontaines D.C., and Shame has led to a succession of rapidly diminishing returns. Toothless newcomers have turned the genre’s sprechgesang vocals, wry lyrics, and jerky instrumentation into a parody of itself – a copy of a copy that has lost all bite, heft, or a sense of purpose.
This corner of the country’s musical landscape is suffering from a distinct lack of ideas. The scene has been consumed by retro aesthetics and values such as innovation or originality are in short supply. However, Black Country, New Road have not succumbed to this slow cancellation of the future. The London band’s sound is bold and progressive, unconcerned with imitation or revivalism. The six-piece paint classical and jazz instrumentation on a deconstructed rock canvas, layering atop nuanced lyricism that conveys sharp narratives and achingly-sincere emotions.
It’s a heady combination, but one that makes a riveting antidote to their peers’ seemingly-endless obsession with aping genres that lived and died 40 years ago. It says a lot about our nostalgia-centric culture that Black Country, New Road have been dogged by comparisons to the 1990’s experimental rock band Slint. As Ants From Up There further proves, this equivalency is absurd. The two share little in common besides a patient approach to composition, with Slint’s iconic brooding darkness and bursts of dissonant intensity nowhere to be found in Black Country, New Road’s reflective, emotive epics.
During the lead-up to Ants From Up There’s release, the band’s frontman Issac Wood left Black Country, New Road, citing mental health reasons. While his health takes priority, his departure is a significant blow for the young band. Wood’s lyrical voice is unique and often profound. Random lyrics spurt from the music, their idiosyncrasy gripping you gently by the wrist. “Snow Globes'” “battleship of memory”, “Bread Song’s” “don’t eat your toast in bed”, and “Good Will Hunting’s” “escape pod filled with your friends” are evocative, funny, and poignant turns of phrase that could have come from no mind other than Wood’s.
His lyrics have also been rightly praised for their contemporary relevance. There’s a tendency within the retro-minded modern indie bands to avoid lyrics that address the complexities of life in 2022 in favor of bland witticisms that wouldn’t feel out of place in music crafted 40 years ago. Wood’s sharp lyrics, however, exist firmly in the here and now. “Good Will Hunting’s” references to “Billie Eilish style” and “moving to Berlin” or “Basketball Shoes'” “we never look at our phones anymore” make the emotive poetry feel disarmingly intimate. It adds a layer of truth that whispers so close you can almost feel its breath against your cheek.
The rest of Black Country, New Road intuitively bolster Wood’s deft, resonant words. The band’s musical craft has already developed since last year’s For the First Time. These ten songs expand on everything the band are capable of; the loud moments are more muscular and ornate, the quiet moments more poised and nuanced. The bold ending of “Haldern” encapsulates their confidence. Almost inadvertently, the rhythm fades away, leaving just the orchestral instruments to collide in a gradually synchronizing crescendo. Other high points include the baroque, resplendent “Chaos Space Marine”, a thrillingly unique yet accessible three-and-a-half minutes, and the heart-stoppingly beautiful epic “Snow Globes”.
It’s hard to overstate just how good Ants From Up There is. It’s not quite Black Country, New Road’s masterpiece, as the band are too young and raw for it to be that perfect. However, it’s tough to find much fault with it. The sprawling nature of the tracks, especially the final two, makes for staggeringly compelling listening. The disregard for conventional structure and instrumentation, combined with the adroit, sincere lyrics, makes Ants From Up There one of the richest and most emotionally-honest albums released by a young British band for quite some time. In a world that seems content to reanimate the past perpetually, Black Country, New Road are daring to dream up something different.