Black Country, New Road’s second album finds the seven-piece ensemble subtly evolving their experimental post-punk in a way that suggests they are starting to take themselves more seriously. It’s no less sprawling or spiralling than their debut album, For The First Time, but it is less bombastic; it sounds as though Black Country, New Road are less concerned with making a statement, more willing to let their songs unravel slowly instead of uncoiling with jack-in-the-box furore.
Isaac Wood’s vocals are now largely sung, rather than being intoned querulously in the kind of sprechgesang that’s become a modus operandi for what seems like every new band. That shift in delivery alone makes Ants From Up There feel much less melodramatic than For The First Time. But a lot of what made Black Country, New Road so interesting has stuck. The obtuse lyrical motifs, the fact their tracks feel more composed than song-written – so that Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Michael Nyman often feel like more apt comparisons than contemporaries like Black Midi and Squid, and their jazz-like sensibility. And throughout Ants From Up There, they seem to revel in the creation of different atmospheres rather than the laying down of hooks or choruses.
Lead single Chaos Space Marine is the first track proper after the instrumental intro, and it packs a lot into three and half minutes. It sounds as though they’re having more fun than before too – just listen to those sax toots and catgut tremors as the instruments introduce themselves. Bread Song unravels itself from rattle and drone into a spikier post punk ballad about a lover who won’t allow the narrator to eat toast in bed, while Haldern is rooted in minimalist piano. Mark’s Theme – a tribute to saxophonist Lewis Evans’ uncle, who died from covid-19 – is a drizzly Edward Hopper painting of a piece, all mournful Tom Waitsian beauty.
There is a model aircraft in some kind of evidence bag on the album sleeve and Concorde references recur throughout the record. It’s the title of one of the tracks and Wood uses it in several others, seemingly as a metaphor for a distant love object. It could serve as a breadcrumb trail to follow – if we want to summon up well-rehearsed comparisons between Black Country, New Road and Slint – or maybe as a contrail spuming out from a craft that’s already left us. If we were to get all etymological about it, then we might note the word’s origin in the Latin concordia, meaning harmony – fitting for a band that tightly and cleverly layers timbres and tones. But then, the other major recurring lyrical theme is ‘Billie Eilish style’, so who knows?
Thematic depth or throwaway references aside, the developed ambition of Black Country, New Road really shows in the final two tracks. Snow Globes starts with a simple repeating guitar pattern – there’s a full three minutes of instrumentals before the vocals kick in – but the layers of instruments, and their different resonances, generate real interest and emotion. The drumming in particular goes beyond drumming here – it’s used more like classical percussion at first, but it turns into a veritable artillery as the song reaches its sublime crescendo. The vocals get more belligerent, the drums get more frantic, but the underpinning repeating pattern of guitar and violin keeps going. It sounds almost as if Sigur Rós and Napalm Death were forced to collaborate – surely a terrible idea, but here Black Country, New Road suggest it could possibly work. And then, to round things off, there’s Basketball Shoes, a longstanding live staple, and a three-act surrealist play of a song – epic post-rock delivered with a sideways glance.
There’s a kind of posthuman 1980s retro-futurism at work in Ants From Up There. It’s there in the space marine and Concorde references, the headset worn by the love object of Bread Song, the ‘battleship of memory’ that surfaces in Snow Globes. But alongside that coldness there are plenty of sad and tender moments. Tenderness and yearning concealed behind a metallic carapace – the line from Chaos Space Marine, ‘Darling, won’t you take my metal hand’ exemplifies this best. For The First Time suggested that BC,NR were wilfully oblique arty types, smirking behind their sunglasses, but this is a more heart-on-sleeve album. Let’s not get too sentimental about it though – that heart is carved into a suit of armour, not tattooed on warm skin.