Ants From Up There: Black Country, New Road

Black Country New Road's album cover Ants From Up There

Black Country, New Road’s stock skyrocketed last year with the release of one of the most acclaimed debuts of the year. Their first studio album For the First Time was a bold, carnivalesque and strange offering of art-rock and post-punk; assertive, brazenly awkward and delightfully eccentric; often sounding like you’ve caught Idles in an especially playful mood. Exploiting Klezmer melodies and rhythms to tell oddball outcast anthems for ironic edgelords was a stunningly left-field move that resulted in a diabolically compelling and anarchic tracklist, with some formidable, attention grabbing highlights, that ruthlessly lampooned masculine insecurities and earned them a high spot on my own albums of the year list. Refining that sound into something more cohesive and balanced was always going to be tricky, so I can’t blame the group too much for switching their sound up so much on their much anticipated follow-up. Nonetheless, I reserve the right to be disappointed with what they’ve delivered. Don’t mistake my feelings, this is disappointment not disdain, there are some very good songs on Ants From Up There, but the visceral and exciting, character-driven sound the group debuted on tracks like “Science Fair” and “Sunglasses”—and which first drew me to them—is barely anywhere to be found.

Instead, Ants From Up There is a more tasteful, reserved and downbeat offering. After For the First Time almost anything would have been, but the difference is stark; more chamber post-rock than ironic mosh-pit rager, with as much string, piano and saxophone as guitar and drum. Singer Isaac Wood was almost always very obviously playing a character on For the First Time, but the personality at the centre of Ants From Up There feels totally sincere, seeing the writing lean more into an emo direction with indirect and poetic lyrics pouring out loneliness, anguish and despair, though the strange and offbeat imagery still gives the songs a vein of almost gallows humour.

The make or break element to this new sound is going to be its longwindedness. Black Country, New Road were never shy about committing to big songs—their 40 minute debut consisted of just six tracks—but they push that ambition even further on Ants From Up There, ending on a more than 12 minute closer “Basketball Shoes”, and just the slowly building intro to “Snow Globes” is a whole song’s length on its own. Even the comparatively short six-minuter “Bread Song” takes its sweet time. They’re not making Swans-ian linear epics, but for a band whose appeal is often very immediate, teasing your listeners like this is a risky move. These songs all have long baroque builds to some huge, blistering climaxes. Each song is impressively dynamic, though some moments could have done with more tension to assure the listener their attention will be rewarded. They’re growers that might ask more patience than a more casual listener will be in the mood to expend, and I’d be lying if I said they were my favourite moments on the album, although they certainly bring it to a tragic conclusion.

Maybe they’re coming into their own, maybe they’re turning their back on their defining traits, but it’s hard to lean too heavily on the latter when many of the songs are still so good. There’s little denying that Ants From Up There feels like a full, mature release, unlike For the First Time which did very much feel like a collection of singles; that was its biggest flaw and not one Ants From Up There shares, despite how many of its songs were already teased to us.

Of those teasers, they were a fairly sound impression of what the album had in store. “Chaos Space Marine” is the most fun and energetic track on the whole record, easing their sonic transition with surging pianos and strings, one of Wood’s most animated and charismatic vocal performances and one of its many, many catchy hooks with a weepy, comedy saxophone line from Lewis Evans. I underrated it as a single last year and would like to amend that by going on record as describing it as one of the best singles of 2021. More despondent tracks like “Concorde” and “Bread Song” didn’t have the immediacy of the lead single, with “Concorde” in particular feeling like the most typically Ants From Up There song of the album, ruminating on regret and blown chances, pouring over a semi-forgotten missed romantic connection with a layered and dynamic progression.

For all their accomplishments, Black Country, New Road’s greatest and more rewarding gift appears to be in creating some maddeningly memorable hooks, with some immediately classic examples being: “oh god of weather, Henry no! Snow Globes don’t shake on their own”, “gentle hill racer”, “I’ll bury the axe here, between the window and the kingdom of men!” and “when you call…I’ll be there”, “she had Billie Eilish style”. Those last two come from “Good Will Hunting” possibly my favourite Black Country, New Road song period, with some beautiful harmonic moments and string-work and a hell of a rhythmic groove.

The frustratingly oblique lyrics are more of an acquired taste. Many of them Wood delivers in a low melodic murmur, and a great deal of them are so abstract with their imagery that it’s difficult to even parse much in the way of mood from them, let alone direct meaning or narrative. Recurrent images like space and air travel seem to push the record in more of a psychedelic direction, and even the more evidently personal moments like “Bread Song”, the first half of which has an almost Mount Eerie quality, the lyrics feel remote and over-abstracted, leaving the listener grasping for something concrete to hold onto until the song gains more of a pulse in its admittedly gorgeous second half.

There are moments that connect on the level of pure melodic eeriness, but it’s less the lyrics and more the tastefully exhilarating instrumental work that elevates Ants From Up There above the standard fare of contemporary art rock. The group might have lost a lot of their humour and absurdity, as well as a lot of heaviness, but their more mature and respectable sound will likely bring them to a new audience who found their trademark theatricality too undiluted on the last record.

It seems further change is guaranteed for the future of Black Country, New Road with singer Isaac Wood announcing his departure from the band just days before this album’s release. How the group will sound going forward and whether or whom they’ll get to replace Wood remains to be seen, but Ants From Up There sets quite the precedent for reinvention of the project, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a year from now we’re hearing another totally different Black Country, New Road.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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