There aren’t many bands that can successfully combine a traditional rock instrumentation with saxophone, violin and acoustic piano, but Black Country, New Road have made a name for themselves precisely by forging those elements into a truly one-of-a-kind sound. Last year, the band teased their potential with their debut album For the First Time, a chaotic and noisy work that combined sprawling compositions, mesmerizing instrumentals and gritty vocal performances into a mind-bending, futuristic rock piece. It’s difficult for any band to follow up on an album as over-the-top as their previous one, but with their latest release, Ants from Up There, Black Country, New Road diversifies their sound without compromising what makes them one of the most fresh and unique rock bands today.
The instrumental prowess that has always been central to Black Country, New Road’s identity is once again on full display on Ants from Up There, even as the band plays with different musical textures across the album’s 10 tracks. The noisiness that defined their debut record is still present in some songs on Ants, such as “Haldern” and “Basketball Shoes,” which feature all of the band members playing at once. However, the band also finds new ways of making a powerful sound without simply relying on thick instrumentation. The nine-minute song “Snow Globes” has one of the most intense climaxes on the entire album thanks to Charlie Wayne’s ridiculous drumming, which swells up to eventually drown out the delicate repeating musical ideas in the saxophone, piano and violin.
Just as the band has evolved their ability to be loud and hectic, they also show songwriting growth. There are songs where this is obvious, like “Mark’s Theme,” a beautiful instrumental featuring an emotional saxophone solo and piano accompaniment. But most of the time, the revamped songwriting is more subtle. By avoiding the abrasive sounds they previously embraced, the band is able to create pleasant, accessible songs that are still engaging. One example of this is “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade,” a seven-minute track influenced by late-career Bob Dylan that has more than enough variety to stay engaging — but not too much where that it undermines the song’s strong sense of harmonic direction.
For as many new directions Black Country, New Road take that pay off, the album’s biggest weakness is that it’s a little too safe most of the time, particularly compared to their groundbreaking debut. The klezmer melodies and irregular rhythms the band mastered on For the First Time are teased on the album’s very short intro track, but after that, they are seldom present as the band tends towards standard Western harmonies and rhythmic patterns. Many fans will probably prefer this album for that reason, but even if For the First Time was uncomfortable to listen to at times, its moments of irregularity served as points of interest that feel missing on new good-but-not-great tracks like “Chaos Space Marine” and “Good Will Hunting.” The album is generally at its best when it’s pushing musical boundaries, even just on the short, dissonant outro to “Haldern,” which serves as an audible reminder of the cost of the band’s new, safer style.
Ants from Up There is a bittersweet album: Just days before it was released, Black Country, New Road vocalist Isaac Wood announced his departure from the group. Wood’s distinctive vocals and lyricism were integral to the band’s innovative sound; replacing his impact will be impossible. With Wood’s departure, Ants from Up There serves as the end of an era for the band, a brief time that will be remembered fondly thanks to this album and its predecessor. Whatever the future holds for the individual musicians of Black Country, New Road, this album shows that each of them is oozing with musical talent, and their futures are bright.
Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at email@example.com.