Black Country, New Road (BC,NR) has been busy this past year. Just a day shy of one year after releasing their debut album, “For the First Time,” they’ve already released their second, “Ants From Up There.” The albums are distinct from each other and from the works of other British experimental rock bands — namely Squid and black midi — that have been crawling their way to the top of the indie ranks over the past few years. The brooding aura and chaotic math rock of “For the First Time” put BC,NR on the map as a confident, well-rounded, and creative band (boasting seven members including a violinist and a tenor saxophonist). However, “Ants From Up There,” which marks the end of frontman and lyricist Isaac Wood’s time with the group, takes a decidedly brighter tone that favors naivety and grandiosity all at once, juxtaposing Wood’s melancholic lyrics with a sprightly, theatrical, and at times harrowing backdrop of instrumentation.
“Ants From Up There” sounds like either the triumphant opening to an original Broadway musical or the grand opening of the gates of hell. Each song seems to construct itself in real time with great precision, making its melody known before evoking a wave of emotion in these brilliant, glistening walls of sound. The live, organic feel of the instrumentation certainly adds a visceral flow to the tracks, whose sometimes daunting lengths are balanced out by the density of impressive musical ideas and fearless execution that the band keeps consistent for 59 glorious minutes.
Each track has a unique personality that shines through. Whether it’s the string-plucked flourishes on “Concorde” that sound like they came from the latest Animal Crossing title or the skeletal backbeats on “Good Will Hunting” that bend time signature and saunter along like a stumbling body, BC,NR has a strong affinity for giving life to each composition. The purely instrumental songs “Intro” and “Mark’s Theme” make a strong impact even in their brevity: “Intro” sets the tone for the album’s madness with a 54-second romp that features complex wind-instrument harmonies sailing across an agitated drum pattern, while “Mark’s Theme” could easily be played at a downtown jazz bar.
The album’s instrumentals provide a perfect backdrop for its earnest, somewhat conceptual lyrics. The playful splashes of saxophone against jittery piano chords on “Chaos Space Marine” create the adventurous image of a cunning stowaway gliding gleefully through a field, far from their hometown. This matches the song’s lyrics, which chronicle Wood leaving his body and “becoming a worm now” as he’s “looking for a place to live,” wanting autonomy, or a pure, naturalistic escape from his emotional turmoil. Meanwhile, “Bread Song” has a chorus — seemingly without a time signature — whose quiet and swirling swells of cymbals and strings cushion somber lyrics about a waning connection between Wood and his lover. “Haldern’s” conceptual focus on spatial and temporal distance between two people (as one of them “rises out through the ceiling”) is complemented gently by luscious piano keys that glitter like stars above Wood’s vocals.
BC,NR truly flex their muscles on the final three tracks, which take up about half of the album’s runtime. “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” takes the childlike flare of “Concorde” and increases it tenfold, telling a thematically charged story about the passage of time and the act of looking back on one’s mistakes, or past selves, in context of another heavily idealized partner. Complete with an intro reminiscent of the best parts of My Chemical Romance’s “The Black Parade,” the song’s sing-along background vocals and deceptively breezy instrumentation round out its passionate edges, like witnessing tragedy from a comfortable view on top of the clouds. It’s perfectly ephemeral, like the best dreams.
Then “Snow Globes,” already coming after one of the album’s highest highs, manages to take things up a notch. Its three-minute introduction feels expansive, like the prologue to an epic poem. About halfway through this nine-minute behemoth, the drums fully disconnect from the other instruments as though there are two songs going on at once. Drummer Charlie Wayne transitions from using simple embellishments on the toms or cymbals into a full-on temper tantrum whose chaos acts as a climax — the harsh comedown of the blizzard alluded to in Wood’s snow globe metaphor.
And just in case you didn’t think the album could get any more intense than that, the closer “Basketball Shoes,” nearly 13 minutes in length, takes all the best parts of the album and pushes them to their limits in a chilling finale. The song is separated into sections that act as either digestible pockets of groove or an ominous crescendo of noise that might populate an otherwise empty auditorium. The grand and terrifying guitars welcome the listener into the band’s dungeon of sound, which eventually culminates in the hardest blow BC,NR delivers on the album. The squealing background vocals add immense humanity to the song’s crushing, explosive, warped instrumental void that arrives in the final two minutes. It wraps you in either the strongest hug of love or the harshest cries of pain before death.
The end of the album is apt given its lyrical and musical themes, which ebb and flow between childish fantasies and the eruptive swarm of social and romantic anxiety. Neither side of its optimism or its pessimism takes full rein — “Ants From Up There” displays the band’s emotional versatility as well as their musical talent and range. By the end, each instrument has a personality and a calculated purpose that moved me to understand both the band’s musical synergy and satisfyingly wistful flair. For those looking for an introduction to the band, “Ants From Up There” checks all the boxes. The potential energy shown on “For the First Time” turns kinetic on this album, which highlights their strengths while also leaving space for wary listeners to absorb the band’s difficult but rewarding exhibition.