Album Review: Black Country, New Road- For the first Time

FURNISHING a burgeoning buzz from just two singles – albeit uniquely abrasive, jazz/noise flecked singles- and a feverish clamour for their live shows, Cambridge’s Black Country, New Road quickly set themselves apart from both their contemporaries. The band were also praised as “the best band in the world” by The Quietus. Again, within just two singles.

Recorded over just six days, their long-awaited debut album is a bristling but personal work, capturing the nascent essence of a band in constant flux. This followed their early period of intensive touring, a side they felt imperative to transcribe onto the record, while also reflecting their later developments: “We’ve matured a lot since we recorded those two tracks,” says saxophonist Lewis Evans.

Hence, several musical dichotomies are juxtaposed throughout, fulfilling this creative transformation: the aggression BC, NR meld into their live shows, against the album’s plentiful moments of contemplation; bottling their fractious live energy, while also glaring ahead to the future (the two initial singles receiving re-recordings); from various members’ primal self-taught essence, to the classically trained background of others.

“Instrumental” highlights the band’s refusal to succumb to creative stasis, through their collective synthesis and characteristic genre-melting of a band assured in the direction of their metamorphic state. Whereas the eclectic percussion and brisk keys give a sense of teetering on implosion, the track’s structure appears almost methodical, taut saxophone swells and keys, in a vibrant klezmer style familiar to saxophonist Lewis Evans and violinist Georgia Ellery, increasing in fervour instinctively.  

Akin to their ever-changing post-punk soundscapes, individual members shapeshift as fluidly; Evans’ saxophone a refined and flexuous muscle of the Black Country… organism. Science Fair’s discordant guitar flurries mesh with Evan’s barbed Fun House-era Stooges sax. Contrastingly, the Coltrane sax flourishes in Athens, France billow its ominous intensity with macabre but serene beauty. Athens’ re-recording attests to the band’s shift from overwhelming intensity to undulating movements of tension and contemplative quieter dynamics. Evans explains how they have realised: “We can play quietly.”. “Intensity worked for us with those early recordings…”, “…but this record is a much more considered approach.”; this version embellishes the grinding groove against sombre passages of effusive guitar and sparse drums.

The re-recording of “Sunglasses” cements this shapeshifting but “considered approach”, droning guitars gestating the track’s angsty stew. This recording also displays guitarist/vocalist Isaac Wood’s quasi-sung/spoken vocals: a subtle yet transformative move from the earlier, spoken style and a perfect vehicle for the societal ruminations, but also for Wood’s vulnerability and honesty. This is inherent in the sung, swaying, lamented rendition of “…I’m so ignorant now”. Wood attributes this to his development as a frontman, allowing “room to perform in harmony with the band.” Honesty is also at the album’s core, in documenting their initial 18-month progression, after which they “put a stop in the road”, Wood says, as they admire artists who are “quite clear and honest about their genuine progression as people and musicians.”

An as-yet-unseen facet of the group, “Track X” sees a “different type of intensity”. The saxophone’s ruminative parps and Ellery’s affecting staccato strings parry emotively: a pensive, melancholic, tender cocoon alongside personal lyricism. “Track X” resurfaced from 2018 sessions and was crafted in the studio for the album; a track “which never made it into our live performances,”, says frontman Isaac Wood. Looping guitar and bass melodies and, latterly, euphoric synth and cooing backing vocals coalesce seamlessly. This collective symbiosis may be owed to their strong bonds, some members being classmates; while also individually flexing musical joints in various other genre-spanning bands.

The closer, a sublime reiteration of the opening klezmer, is similarly intuitive, gliding through alternating dynamics which offset the klezmer skip. Unhinged vocals, freeform sax, and frazzled guitars form an unrestrained crescendo, concluding the track and album with vociferous poise.

A freewheeling, triumphant opus of wildly articulate musicianship, BC, NR’s debut signposts a truly unique band’s past propensities, moulded reflexively into their present, and (undoubtedly spectacular) future.

In addition to their live shows towards the end of the year, Black Country, New Road recently announced a virtual gig at the Southbank Centre on March 6th. Full details and tickets here.

See here for information and tickets for the band’s other performances across Europe and the UK.

For The First Time is out on Ninja Tune on February 5th; pre-order your copy here.

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