Rarely, if ever, have a band so quickly distanced themselves from an acclaimed debut album the way Black Country, New Road have from their 2021 record For the first time. Since its release, the septet have been keen to remind fans that it was just a collection of the first songs they wrote as BCNR, they’ve dropped breakthrough single “Sunglasses” from their live sets, and have been much keener to discuss their second album than dwell on their Mercury Prize-nominated first. Almost exactly a year later we have Ants From Up There, and it’s clear to see why.
For the first time was an album written in the fallout of another band, re-tooled on the road, and recorded with extreme levels of hype and expectation behind it. All of these factors resulted in a snarling record full of posturing – which is what made it brilliant, of course. However, recording Ants over the pandemic and not having as much opportunity to road test it has let BCNR really get lost in their process and discover a new level of creative potential that has revealed their true selves.
Previously, praise was heaped on Georgia Ellery’s violin playing and Lewis Evans’ brass and the way they implemented learned musical styles into the band’s raw post-punk sound. However, their thrilling playing was never the focal point, it felt like an adornment to the guitars growling through the centres of the songs. This time around, BCNR’s sound has been turned inside out. Ellery and Evans’ work – not to mention May Kershaw’s piano and Charlie Wayne’s diverse drumming – are the stars, while the guitars form the backbone.
Undoubtedly BCNR are studious music nerds, but in writing Ants they’ve pushed past their schooling and have created much more original ideas. “Bread Song” is an example of this, with guitars murmuring while the piano, violin and sax swell and unwind together in grandiose layers like a slow-motion tsunami, emphasising the flushes of emotion that singer Isaac Wood describes in his lyricism. When Wayne’s drums skip into the song at the halfway point, the trio of melodic quietly swirl into an interwoven pattern that becomes a sparkling micro tornado of feeling. It’s the kind of breathtaking original arrangement that could only have been created through concentrated collaboration and understanding.
Similarly experimental and audacious is album highlight “Snow Globes”, where the melodic instruments all play the same repeated progression in unison across the nine-minute track, gradually encroaching on the singer and forcing him to a cliff-edge of emotion. When Wayne’s drumming comes in at the halfway point, it’s completely disconnected from what everyone else is doing, a torrential force of its own, which could easily sound like an awkward juxtaposition – or a complete mess. However, BCNR are canny and intelligent enough to know it works, and it only enhances Wood’s imagistic repetition “snow globes don’t shake on their own” – it’s as if the melodies are the pretty picture inside the snow globe while the pulverising percussion represents the outside forces, shaking it into a state of bluster.
This overall reduction in the reliance on guitar riffs allows for greater flexibility of sound, and as such BCNR wring out more staggering peaks of emotion from Wood’s lovelorn words. Across the album the singer presents an outrageously broad array of reference points, from sci-fi and fantasy to naval history – but they are all obscure ways of swiping at the desperation he feels in the modern day. Comparisons have been made to Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and the instrumentation and scope does give that some merit. However, where the Canadians’ uproarious anthems brought people together, BCNR’s are full-throated yelps of dismay and disconnection.
Broadly, Ants is a portrait of a young man being torn apart by conflicting instincts. The gut-wrenching “Concorde” shows a man ripe with romanticism but riddled with insecurity, becoming sick with desire for the titular object of his affections. On “Good Will Hunting” he’s desperate for intimate connection but untrusting of technology – “You call, I’ll be there / What’s more, I’m scared of the phone / Don’t ring it” he sings over a jaunty backing where you can practically hear him forcing a smile through his wincing pain. He’s always ready to show unremitting devotion, even if that means destruction, as on “The Place Where He Inserted The Blade” where BCNR pair his grisly words about body mutilation and emotional abuse with an arrangement that suggests loved-up bliss.
The video for “Concorde” posited the idea that the album title Ants From Up There refers to aliens from outer space, but, listening to the album itself, the title seems more likely to be about literal ants crawling through a crack in the ceiling of a run-down London flat. The record is rife with the trappings of humble domestic life, whether crumbs in bed, packed lunches or broken WiFi – and you get the feeling that this is Wood’s domain. As long as he’s in this realm with his beloved, the world feels beautiful and manageable. It’s only when the outside world and all its pressures start to close in that things get wobbly. It’s this push and pull between bliss and torment, so wonderfully elaborated by the band’s unique arrangements, that makes Ants a gripping, heartbreaking and life-affirming listen.
Shortly before the release of Ants, Isaac Wood departed the band, citing unremitting feelings of sadness and fear. This makes the veneer between artist and human seem even thinner than ever, forcing us to take his heavy, doom-filled words in a more literal manner. As a reviewer, it makes me second guess my simplistic interpretations of his words for fear of trivialising something that was profoundly painful for the author. Yet, his involved and mysterious words – delivered with his unique ability to move from growl to quiver in a breath – beg for emotional investment. He has left us with this bundle of tangled thorns, and, as dark as it was for him to reveal them to the world, I believe he would encourage listeners to draw their own meaning from them, and hopefully feel some satisfaction in knowing how much light they’ve brought to thousands of others.