Album Review: Black Country, New Road – For The First Time

[Ninja Tune; 2021]

For as long as they’ve been making a ruckus together (which is only a few years now), London’s Black Country, New Road have drawn comparisons to the ubiquitous Slint, the 90s experimental rockers whose legacy and mysterious presence has loomed over decades of guitar music. Nine out of 10 times this would be a massive compliment, as Slint’s sophomore record Spiderland maintains cult status to this day, but as honorary as this comparison may come across, BC, NR deserve better. For a project who has released little to no music until this point, you may be thinking, ‘how can one shoot down such a respectable comparison?’ Well, just wait until you hear BC, NR’s debut album For The First Time, a record that far surpasses the necessity of any and all comparisons. With their highly-anticipated record, this ballistic band birthed from the Brixton Windmill have constructed their own world, where self-abnegation abounds and anxiety festers, yet experimental ingenuity shines a light through all its darkness.

As Isaac Wood – the beguilingly nervous chap at the heart of the anxiety-ridden outfit – sings on album centrepiece “Science Fair”, BC, NR’s songs are full of “references, references, references” that relay their overwhelming delirium and exhaustion brought on by capitalist-driven high and low cultural trends and artefacts. Throughout, he communicates a shell of a person desensitized by the cheap marketing tricks performed at the core of pop culture. Not only does this message come across in the music, but the album’s rollout as well. Their social media presence, album cover and videos make use of free stock photos and minimal design effort that recall those annoying Huel ads on your Facebook feed, and in doing so BC,NR amusingly strip away the shiny nonsense and instead force the listener to focus on the sprawling, chaotic sound and emotion expressed through the music itself.

When describing the essence of For The First Time, the word ‘chaos’ cannot be overstated – organized chaos, that is. Across the record, each unruly climax feels earned, while every layer of instrumentation thrown into this volatile stewing pot is approached with precise measurement. This is true from the get-go as listeners are baptized by fire from the scorched hands of the album’s frantic opener, “Instrumental”. A krautrock banger that blusters and blisters away for over five minutes, this beast takes its first breaths as a steadily groovy drum-driven track, before ushering in squealing layers of saxophone and incessantly deranged guitar. Soon, it evolves into an out-of-control fire-cracker that sprays shrapnel in every direction, smoldering hotter and hotter as we reach the cacophonous final moments. Even with such an unassuming title as “Instrumental”, this explosive introduction makes for a most apropos taste of Black Country, New Road for virgin ears. And yet, “Instrumental” is just a mere taste of the weaving darkness to come.

Album highlight “Science Fair” embraces the record’s innate chaos at-large, painting it a few shades darker – uncomfortably cryptic even – not that Wood and the gang were ever about making their listeners comfortable to begin with. Here, Wood is at his peak as a devilish lyricist and vocalist. Well, he’s not really singing; he’s more casting spells with his stuttering spoken-word style that teeters between boyish and torn and tattered by the world. Uttering lyrics that push against the grain with coy self-deprecation, this is an effectively unnerving display by a frontperson just beginning to grow into their own.

As the torturous breakdown of “Science Fair” rears its head, listeners ride a wave of saxophone freak-outs, a creeping bassline, and dissonant feedback – it’s a threatening loop that only becomes more apocalyptic until it finally passes. Preceded by Wood’s unhinged war cry that “it’s black country out there!”, the track’s finale arrives like a swarming cloud of hungry locusts, madness ensues, and the track’s integrity, or lack thereof, completely collapses. At this moment, each member wields their respective battle weapons – Wood and his guitar, Georgia Ellery (of Jockstrap) and her violin, Charlie Wayne and his drumkit, and Lewis Evans and his saxophone, along with the rest of the septet – to conjure a hailstorm of noise that drives the track home emphatically.

“Sunglasses”, the slithering single that first appeared in summer 2019 and made BC,NR much more than a blip on the radar, appears at the heart of For The First Time in newly-recorded fashion, trekking a harrowing journey upon a road most obscure. Beneath the song’s briefly gorgeous veneer of math rock noodling, something swims about forebodingly; it’s the fearful, devious and verbose spectre of Wood. This specific piece sees Wood as a particularly magnetic storyteller, as he weaves a tale of ineptitude and inferiority that tailspins into insanity when he meets his girlfriend’s comparably affluent parents, who are mind-numbingly swooned by the trappings of suburban creature comforts: Danish crime dramas, shouting insults at the television, bemoaning the existence of Kanye West, and pristine walls decorated by family photos. This horrifying milquetoast life is, as Wood puts sneeringly, “the absolute pinnacle of British engineering.”

Depraved and nihilistic, you begin to worry that a diabolical force operates as BC, NR’s lifeblood, but before any presupposed thoughts are made absolute, the band treats listeners to the faint and dreamy “Track X”. Taking the opening riff of “Sunglasses” and flipping it around, the lovelorn and violin-led single takes us through calmer waters, as Ellery’s cooing voice soothes beneath Wood’s delicate words about devotion. It’s a stunning and more mature turn from the post-punks, and a direction that the outfit can run with in the future. 

After “Track X” provides a well-timed moment of reprieve, the visceral spirit ratchets back up with the advent of the album’s detonative closer, “Opus”. A pseudo-reprise of the klezmer-indebted album opener, “Opus” is the monstrous creature that many listeners had hoped for: it’s dynamic, driving, sinister, but above all, suspenseful. As yet another cataclysmic breakdown incinerates expectation, emphasizing the cathartic power of Wood’s rabid left-field vocals as he belts “What we built must fall to the rising flamеs,” we are left at the end of For The First Time with an indescribable sensation that must be heard to be believed.

When first experiencing this record, there comes a moment of revelation where its singularity and the band’s potential click. For myself, that specific moment coincided with brief silence where the ornate beauty of “Track X” ended and delicately gave way to the heat-seeking sonics of “Opus.” It was during that fleeting interval of silence where I knew Black Country, New Road had devised a record – and sound – unrivaled by most acts emerging from the latest post-punk resurgence. With their bizarrely experimental guitar music and a poetic flair that speaks to Gen-Z, Black Country, New Road have also proven that they are no longer the next Slint or, in Wood’s own words, “the world’s second-best Slint tribute act.” Instead, they have made a name for themselves with a record that may very well be “the absolute pinnacle of British engineering.”