By Jonah Krueger, News Editor
[Ninja Tune; 2021]
Key tracks: “Athens, France”, “Science Fair”, “Sunglasses”, “Opus”
Black Country, New Road accomplished something incredible—they released an album that got noticed. After forming from the ashes of a promising band ruined by the actions of a single member, the seven-piece’s trajectory seemed pretty straightforward. Gain a quick cult following off the basis of live performances, work out new material, put out a single or two, sign to a label, release a debut album—all the while remaining mysterious and developing an idiosyncratic aesthetic.
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Yet, because of unlucky timing, Black Country, New Road couldn’t capitalize off of this rubric the way their Windmill billmates black midi did in 2019. Without the Brixton post-punk scene and the European festival circuit to supply obsessive fans with bootlegs and work-in-progress demos, the band now faced the prospect of losing the momentum they had spent years building up.
Fortunately, the band avoided such a tragic scenario, primarily thanks to the strength of their songs.
For the first time, as the band has repeatedly stated in interviews, is aimed at capturing the spirit and energy of the band in its earliest incarnation. Live staples and the group’s first compositions make up the tracklist. The result is a mixture of post-punk, klezmer, jazz and (yes, of course) Slint-ian dynamics, over which frontman Isaac Wood drapes his reference-heavy, hyper-modern lyricism. Frankly, it’s exhilarating.
The album starts with “Instrumental”, a groovy tone-setter that introduces the sounds that will be further explored on subsequent tracks: staccato horns, blistering guitar tones, eccentric percussion, syncopated strings. As the title implies, vocals are absent from the song, a bold decision for a band with hype built in no small part because of the manic performances of Wood. Instead, the track allows the music to make a case for itself; a confident move that pays off in dividends.
A re-recorded “Athens, France” and the noisy “Science Fair” follow, introducing Wood’s sprawling first-person narratives and the band’s knack for structuring a song to maximise tension and release. A new, extended rendition of “Sunglasses” takes these elements to the max, leading in with a droney, slightly Sunn O)))-ish intro and spending the next 9 minutes slowly anticipating a climactic refrain. “Track X”, perhaps the album’s sole slow-burner, expands the band’s sonic-toolkit before “Opus” explosively closes For the first time the same way it would for any good Black Country, New Road live performance.
Now, just because Black Country, New Road’s rise was more winding than expected does not mean that they didn’t have to fight the same challenge faced by most cult live bands—hype. Which leads to the elephant in the room: the changes made to the fan-loved pre-album singles “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses.” With slight amendments made to the verses and all curse words wiped clean, listeners who have been repeating the originally released versions to themselves for the past two years might their first listens jarring, even off-putting.
And while few things in this world will ever be as cathartically fun as screaming “fuck me like you mean it this time” with the 2019 version of “Sunglasses”, both rerecordings undeniably offer a tighter, expanded instrumental and, once given time to sink in, showcases lyrics that are just as poetic. No longer hinging upon Wood’s eccentricities, the focus is placed back on the collaboration of the group and the entirety of the songs, rather than a few admittedly ear-catching refrains. As with the decision to open the album with an instrumental jam, the band is making an effort to let the songs speak for themselves, which, in turn, proves to be a surprisingly effective way to subvert any and all hype their first two singles garnered.
Hype is going to be harder to avoid, yet perhaps easier to manage, going forward, however, after the band put forth such a compelling 40 minutes of music. With several songs showcased in their live performances still yet to be officially released and the band alluding to a significantly more developed sound in future output, the future of Black Country, New Road is just as exciting and unpredictable as it was when they had a mere single song out. Everybody’s coming up, don’t be late to the party.