Music Review: Ants From Up There - Black Country, New Road
Band: Black Country, New Road
Album: Ants from Up There
Release Date: February 4th 2022
Label: Ninja Tune
Genres: Chamber Pop, Post-Rock, Post-Punk
In a musically strong 2022, UK-based rock outfit Black Country, New Road rise to the top with their magnificent sophomore LP. The band, despite sounding more accessible than ever, lose nothing of what made them so special on their debut, offering us an album that embraces life’s joys and sorrows in perfect tension. We’ll be talking about this record for years to come.
The late 2010’s was a treat for post-punk fans thanks to the exploding scene in the English underground with groups like Shame, Black Midi, and Squid, but out of all this new excitement, Black Country, New Road turned the most heads in 2019 when they started to release tracks like Athens, France and Sunglasses. Frontman Isaac Wood was unapologetically odd, preferring a more spoken-word approach over your typical art-punk shouts. The band finally released their debut record For the First Time last year and immediately cemented themselves as one of the most promising new acts not just out of the UK but on a global scale.
Having read as much information on them as the internet has to offer, it’s clear that the band, made up of 7 members and multiple instruments, are a tight-knit group whose love for music led them to becoming laser-focused on putting out truly quality material. Their cited influences are varied- Father John Misty, Frank Ocean, Arcade Fire, Charli XCX and Steve Reich as particular standouts. That debut record, an excellent experiment in jazzy post-punk, came out of lots of time spent together perfecting their sound. Despite me personally disagreeing with the claims that the group was nothing more than a Slint ripoff, even I could recognize that First Time was a bit one-note and far too patience-testing for casual listeners.
While still fresh in the after-glow of that LP, the band announced that they were sitting on more music that they were even more hyped about than their previous offering. In October 2021, they released their lead single for this upcoming project Chaos Space Marine, stunning fans with something far bouncier than anything we’d heard from them before. After the full lineup of teaser tracks had come out early this year, we knew that BCNR were not only reinventing themselves but improving their craft as well. In a shocking twist, frontman Isaac Wood announced on Instagram mere days before Ants from Up There was set to release that he was leaving the band due to mental health reasons. This not only saddened fans but placed much more of a spotlight on what Isaac Wood would offer us vocally and lyrically on this new record.
Wood more than exceeded our expectations. On Ants, he shines with powerful charisma, becoming one of the most dynamic lead vocalists in rock today. Isaac adds more range to his spoken word approach, working in gut-wrenching shouts to counterbalance his typical strained, dejected tone. But where Wood excels most are his lyrics, which are often uncomfortably honest but manage to avoid the common emo pitfall of being cringe-worthy. He’s such a fascinating mixture of projected self-assurance and embarrassing insecurity, perfectly encompassing the awkwardness of adolescence. I’ve thought about lines like, “Please know that I'm just trying to find some way to keep me in your mind, and later on everyone will say it was cool,” for days, grimacing at how close to home this hits. In the same track Wood repeats the refrain of “She has Billie Eilish style, moving to Berlin for a little while, trying to find something to hold on to,” which just begs to be screamed along with in a packed arena. Eclectic and commanding, there’s something about his writing that I find myself chewing on long after I’ve taken off my headphones.
What completes the experience that is Ants from Up There is the music. Man, oh man is the music on this record good, hitting us with one powerhouse tune after another, never sticking to one sound for too long but giving us a buffet of chamber pop, indie rock, and post-punk. The album opens similarly to First Time with a klezmer jam, which transitions seamlessly to that first lead single Chaos Space Marine, a baroque-pop banger that ends in a breakdown that I can’t decide if I want to mosh or square-dance to. Concorde is maybe the most wholesome track on the LP, the kind of song that makes you want to sprint up a mountain with its exhilarating builds and flourishing instrumentation. Good Will Hunting is my favorite song of 2022, a track that showcases BCNR’s masterful ability to progress upon an initial melody flawlessly.
I could go on, but I’d rather not spoil every musical idea that Ants has to offer. Despite the plethora of artists I could compare them to (Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Talk Talk, Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens) the band always sound uniquely themselves. This album is our generation’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with its incredible fluctuation between tension and release. It’s surprising at every corner and despite many listens at this point I’m still finding new things I could praise about the music on this record.
Black Country, New Road gave us something truly remarkable this year, but the album comes with the bittersweet reminder that the band as we know it will be forever changed with Isaac Wood’s departure. Despite this harsh reality, we can be thankful for what we’ve got so far. I know the phrase ‘instant classic’ is oxymoronic, but there is something clearly important about this record. I see it becoming the next Deathconsciousness in terms of it having an internet-based cult-like following. Perhaps some of the record’s more jazzy elements won’t be for everyone, but Ants from Up There is varied enough to give anyone something to enjoy. It’s sitting comfortably as my 2022 album of the year, and while it’s always possible an early year release gets dethroned I’d be shocked if anything in the coming months manages to top it.
Luke Zeka is a music reviewer and co-host of the Optiv Music Podcast. He is verified on www.albumoftheyear.org as a music reviewer and has completed his MDiv from Trinity International University. Luke lives in Madison, WI with his wife.