With their second album Ants From Up There, Black Country, New Road has officially shed the postpunk tag. The band radically broadened their horizons to allow for a theatrical convergence of post rock, minimal music, jazz, indie, and emo. But however gorgeous the music on the album, it will forever remind us of singer Isaac Wood’s sudden departure. Dirk Baart describes a band for which change is at the core of its existence and speaks to band members Tyler Hyde and Lewis Evans.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Along with 35,000 Brits, we - F. and I - are standing in Heaton Park, about 10 kilometres outside of Manchester. There is a ferris wheel and a line in front of the portaloos. Ahead, people are spending way too much money on slack-baked burgers, a surprisingly tasty burrito, or a plastic cup of beer - British size, naturally. It is 10 September 2021. In the Netherlands, concerts are still off-limits, but in the United Kingdom most covid restrictions were lifted months ago. Working Men’s Club from nearby Todmorden and the London outfit Hot Chip have already played their sets; still to come at nine is the headliner: New Order. For two hours, the band goes through the many extremes of its discography, from ‘Your Silent Face’ (Power, Corruption and Lies, 1983) to ‘Regret’ (Republic, 1993) and ‘Plastic’ (Music Incomplete, 2015). Their early work has been especially foundational for both of tonight’s support acts.
It is a night in which time is difficult to hold onto. The band that, in my book, has had an insurmountable influence on music history, turns out to still exist in 2021 (albeit without founding member Peter Hook) and is sharing the stage with musicians younger than me. Lockdowns that seemed to last an eternity - and that would once again dominate life in the Netherlands after I got back - were suddenly forgotten. The world is standing still in the way it could stand still ‘back in the day’, witnessing a concert of which you fruitlessly tried to take in every millisecond, trying to never forget.
For New Order, too, this is a special night. It is their first time in four years playing a hometown gig. The group begins with an instrumental version of ‘Times Change’, a sinister track off of Republic. On the big screen we see old footage of Manchester. Images of a city no longer in existence, of people who have long traded the temporary for the eternal.
Time To Pretend
Three days earlier. London is still simmering after a hot summer’s day. Black Country, New Road is playing The Lexington, a cosy pub a stone’s throw from King’s Cross with a little concert room on the first floor. The seven-piece band had previously made a name for itself as an exponent of the recent post punk revival. On 18 January 2019, the band released its debut single ‘Athens, France’ through Dan Carey’s renowned label Speedy Wunderground. In over six minutes, the song combines spiky sprechgesang infused post punk with klezmer like violins and saxophones, and a bombastic climax. Along with second single ‘Sunglasses’, ‘Athens France’ determines the course for debut album For the first time, which is released over two years later. It is an intense record, set on making the listener sweat, largely workshopped during the band’s lauded live performances.
But there is something up with Black Country, New Road. Something that hints at a band in constant motion. Both ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ are not included on the album as they appear on the acclaimed singles, but in new renditions, with slightly different lyrics and arrangements. And then there is the wondrous ‘Track X’, which breaks up the album right before it ends with a melancholic, minimal music moment of relaxation. Shortly after the release of For the first time, the track is released by the band in an acoustic rendition, ‘Track X ('The Guest' referring to singer Isaac Wood’s solo moniker. During a livestream in honor of the album’s release, ‘Track X’ is the only song on the album to make an appearance. The album exhibits the final versions of these songs, it appears, not the root of their existence.
In The Lexington, more than half a year after the release of For the first time, more than half the show is comprised of new material. When an overzealous fan keeps requesting ‘Sunglasses’, they are kindly but urgently encouraged by violinist Georgia Ellery to “shut up”. No, in the shadows of the pandemic, isolated from expectations and exaltations, the band has long moved on. As ‘Sunglasses’ disappears in the rearview mirrors, the life cycle of the new songs begins. The spiky post punk is traded for melodramatic indie and post rock, the sardonic sprechgesang for heartfelt chanting. The band even begins their set with a dramatic rendition of MGMT’s ‘Time To Pretend’. In the hands of Black Country, New Road, the song is turned into the true tearjerker the grim lyrics had always hinted at. The cover is ultimately released alongside two ABBA covers and an Adele cover on the Never Again EP. Beyond that, the lucky audience of two hundred is treated to a chaotic sea chanty, een drawn out, Beach Boys-esque ballad and epic slowburner ‘Basketball Shoes’, which at that point had already grown into a fan favourite among those who frequently gather on Discord and in Facebook groups. The atmosphere is euphoric in its intimacy. The privilege of being able to witness an apparently inseparable band performing new material in such a small venue, inspires an unspoken communal feeling among the crowd of strangers. The fact that the ATM at The Lexington does not accept our Dutch debit cards hardly spoils the fun. We are content.
The Place Where He Inserted The Blade
It only takes a month before the chaotic sea chanty receives its name. On 12 October 2021 ‘Chaos Space Machine’ is released as the first single from Ants From Up There, Black Country, New Roads second album. The album is released only 364 days after For the first time, on 4 February 2022, but shows a band transformed, something which the Lexington show already hinted at. There is a sense of calm to the album, perhaps because it was recorded in a church-turned-recording-studio on the Isle of Wight. Ants From Up There is full of layered songs with moody stretches that make the bombastic moments on ‘Concorde’, ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘Basketball Shoes’ hit even harder. The newfound attention for this work of contrast appears to be the result of the band co-headlining a tour with the London slowcore outfit Deathcrash. The songs all slowly resolve over six, nine, sometimes twelve minutes a piece, but never feel too long. They contain enough parts and motives to allow for endless repeat listening, but never feel contrived. It is the sound of seven gifted musicians who can play whatever they feel like, but also of seven friends in their early twenties that are having fun together and are getting better and better at pursuing their musical interests.
Where the band - still full of youth - described For the first time as a “collection of songs from when we were younger”, Ants From Up There is clearly carved from one and the same whole. “It all started with ‘Basketball Shoes’”, says saxophone player Lewis Evans. Along with bass player Tyler Hyde he is excited to give me some context, a few weeks ahead of the album’s release. It is an interesting experience talking to them, several months after their show at The Lexington, perhaps one of the most extraordinary shows I have ever seen. The people I am talking to are responsible for music that has resonated with me more than anything else these last few years, but they are also just two people my age who also spend their time worrying (too much) about the same things. “That would have been in 2019,” Evans continues, “when we were starting to head in this direction. Other songs started to take shape around the first lockdown. It was important for us to make our music more accessible. We used to sometimes think that we could make everything work as long as it was experimental. But actually, we don’t listen to much experimental music ourselves. It’s been a lot of Arcade Fire and post rock instead. O, and ‘Snow Globes’ was inspired by a jazz composition, ‘Silence’ by Charlie Haden. It starts with this one trumpet melody that is repeated over and over, until slowly more instruments join in.”
Evans once played ‘Silence’ with an ensemble at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the London conservatory where he studied, just like Ellery and keyboard player May Kershaw, who on Ants From Up There has largely traded her synthesizer for the piano. Because of this background, there lies at least one moment of true virtuosity in every song on this album. Yet it is the contrast with the members without a conservatory background that keeps Black Country, New Road on edge. It guarantees that the virtuosity at no point turns into superfluity and that at all times, despite the many layers, the human touch is tangible. “A band full of conservatory musicians would have been rubbish,” Evans agrees. “When we recorded the first album, it was only the people that went to a conservatory that were being finicky about their takes. No one else could hear anything wrong. I didn’t want that to happen again, so when we started recording Ants From Up There I decided: people are going to have to deal with my saxophone playing as it is. The ones who’ve not been to a conservatory have been very helpful in that regard. They’ll just say: do you really think we’re going to do a take where you play a little bit better, while we’re all playing like shit?” But Hyde also points to the advantages of having Evans and co in the band. “It makes our communication much more efficient and has taught us all a lot about music theory. If sometimes I don’t know how to tell Luke what I want him to play, May or Lewis can easily do that for me, getting us to a solution much quicker.”
You can already tell when listening to Ants From Up There, but the way Hyde and Evans describe their creative process confirms just how important the internal communication is for Black Country, New Road. The many different inspirations and layers of instrumentations need to fit seamlessly, if possible without compromise. “We’re democratic to a bizarre extent,” Evans laughs. “Everyone has to be satisfied before we can continue. And if you’re not satisfied, you have to come up with a solution. If that solution is better, we’ll go with that. If it isn’t, then we won’t. Everyone needs to be on board. We’ve never really argued about any of that, but obviously you sometimes need to check in with each other, because some members of the band are a bit more quiet than others. Otherwise, most of our process is unspoken. We only really talk about it in interviews.”
“We recorded the album live because, within this band, we don’t really exist as individuals,” Hyde adds. “All our parts are so intertwined with the others that you need to be in constant interaction with each other in order to determine where to go next.” And the interaction between the seven members of Black Country, New Road is constant on Ants From Up There. It is why Isaac Wood at some point compared the oscillating ‘Bread Song’ to Steve Reich’s iconic minimal music composition Music For 18 Musicians. For part of that piece, the tempo is not decided by predetermined time signatures, but simply by the breath of the clarinet player. “I wanted to try that with the whole band,” Wood explained with the release of ‘Bread Song’, “where we don’t look at each other, we don’t make too many cues, we just try and play without time - but together.”
Four days before the release of Ants From Up There, Isaac Wood announced his departure from Black Country, New Road. The decision had been a long time coming, but in the end, there never is a right moment for bad news. He is sad and afraid, he writes, too sad and too afraid to get on stage and play the songs he had made with his bandmates. At the time of this interview, no news had been announced, but naturally the band members had been aware for some time. In retrospect, it seems like Hyde was anticipating the bursting of the bubble which she knew was imminent, when, by the end of our conversation, she said: “The most important, ultimately, is that friendship comes before music. That’s how we’ve always seen it. We were friends first and bandmates second.”
Wood’s departure not only turns every interview instantly obsolete, it also makes listening to Ants From Up There an entirely different experience. An album that, until recently, seemed to (only) be about a difficult long-distance relationship, now (also) sounds like a beautiful but painful announcement of an irreversible farewell. It all lies in the ambiguity of Wood’s lyrics, full of recurring mantras on Ants From Up There. Picking apart his every word would defeat the purpose, but the role played by the Concorde on Ants From Up There is remarkable. The airliner that came from an arduous collaboration with the British and French government in 1969 lends its name to one of the album’s standout songs as well as the cover; in Wood’s lyrics it seems to act as a metaphor for the band itself. A passion project by a couple of friends, but one that is increasingly burdened by external expectations. A band that is supersonic like the Concorde: so quick that sound can hardly keep up. A band that is a concord, a unit, but won’t - like on the album cover - be forever preserved in a plastic bag. After all, Times Change.
And just like that, the Ants From Up There era has come to an end, even though it never really began in the first place. One can only feel sympathy for Wood’s brave decision, but the question ‘what now?’ is an immediate one for a lot of Black Country, New Road fans. Because a band that is capable of a record like Ants From Up There deserves a long and prosperous career.
A pessimist would argue that Black Country, New Road has found itself in a pickle. If ever a band existed that was more than the sum of its parts, it surely must be Black Country, New Road. And yet there is promise in Ants From Up There that suggests the remaining members will be able to forge new connections, there is promise of a road ahead, wide open like never before. It is reminiscent of the road that lay ahead of New Order after the untimely death of Ian Curtis in 1980, a road that led them from dark post punk to an experiment in electronics that was as forlorn as it was euphoric. The big difference being that Wood’s has made his mental health a priority, and the fact that Black Country, New Road never even really intended to pursuit the same trajectory for all eternity. With or without Wood, the next Black Country, New Road album was never going to sound anything like Ants From Up There. Perhaps he would have still sung, perhaps he would have given that up entirely. If there is one band right now that is capable of such change, it is Black Country, New Road. During the interview, Hyde and Evans tell me they are already writing new material, based in part on the songs Hyde has been making as Tyler Cryde, inspired by the prog rock scene that emerged from Canterbury in the late sixties.
Let’s not, however, leave Ants From Up There behind just yet, because any optimism for the future of Black Country, New Road is partially rooted in the many memorable moments that have forever been preserved on this album. Like Charlie Wayne’s overwhelming drums that, little by little, seem to turn ‘Snow Globes’ into a full-blown blizzard. Or the meditative saxophone melodies on ‘Mark’s Theme’, which Lewis Evans wrote for an uncle that died of covid. Or the shameless grandiosity of May Kershaw’s bass and Tyler Hyde’s piano parts on ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’. Or Georgia Ellery’s mournful violin playing on the restrained ‘Bread Song’, Luke Mark’s nineties guitars blissfully battering the album intro in the middle. Or, most of all, the harmonies on ‘Basketball Shoes’, a purgative sound turning sadness into joy as Wood gives his all, one last time. It seems a confirmation of one of the most prophetic lines on the album, ‘And then Isaac will suffer, Concorde will fly.’
Or, as New Order closes its set in Heaton Park, while a black-and-white photo of Ian Curtis appears on the big screen:
And we’re changing our ways
Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again