Black Country, New Road: ‘For the first time’ review

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By Jasper Price, Second Year Theatre

With the likes of Black Midi, Girl Band and Daughters on the scene, it would seem that the boundaries of rock music have never been further from their roots. Black Country, New Road are no exception as they release their frantic and unruly debut For the first time.

After the release of singles ’Sunglasses’ and ‘Athens, France’ back in 2019, hype began to build around what an album from the Cambridge-based band would look like. What we got is a six-track collision of genre, with a fair helping of witty lyricism and solid musicianship. For the first time is as concise as it is persistent, as rich as it is bleak. In short: it’s an album of juxtapositions.

The band kick off proceedings with ‘Instrumental’, a track which melds post-rock drumming with klezmer horns. Ending in a rule-book-smashing cacophony of sounds, from the outset of the album we begin to understand where things are going. The track feels grand, with layers of strings incorporated into the mix for maximum crescendo.

Black Country, New Road is a 7-piece outfit from Cambridge | Image Courtesy of El Hardwick

Next, to ‘Athens, France’, where we first hear frontman Isaac Wood’s unique vocal sound. Starting off as a groove-rock number, the track progresses into sublime tranquillity with jangly guitars and soft saxophones.

The drums and bass in ‘Science Fair’ are reminiscent of a college marching band, but there’s something opaque and unnerving about them. Wood’s lyricism feels comic as he tells the story of a girl he met at the science fair: ‘And she was so impressed I could make so many things catch on fire / But I was just covered in bubbles of methane gas / And you ended up burning.’

Appropriately, it’s the band’s chemistry that really shines through. The rhythm section is so tight and precise that when the sweeping distortion comes in later, the track still feels mathematic. That is until the end of the song, which turns into a fuzz-fest of noise sure to rival that of any experimental rock outfit. Here, Wood screams to match the distortion, repeating ‘It’s Black Country out there!’

Wood sings with a theatrical level of vibrato, making the most mundane sentence sound droll and surprisingly profound. On the track ‘Sunglasses’ Wood even makes the line ‘Mother is juicing watermelon on the breakfast island / And with frail hands she grabs the Nutribullet’ sound tense and angsty. When accompanied with the shrill brass, his vibrato becomes a violent quiver, which builds with the instrumentation. Although the mix in this version of ‘Sunglasses’ is more rounded compared to the single, the rawness and incomparability is lost somewhat.

‘Track X’, whose riff seems to mirror that of ‘Sunglasses’, presents us with a surprisingly elegant and beautiful moment - the intensity of previous tracks has been turned inside out. The plucky strings and soft piano create playful droplets around the melody, and the backing singing glides ethereally over Wood's lyrics.

He describes a warm moment, whist also slipping in a reference to fellow indie newcomers and speedy underground collaborators Black Midi. ‘Track X’ is certainly a moment of calm in the album, for we are soon welcomed back into the chaotic arms of ‘Opus’. This eight minute slow burner perfectly rounds off the album. Bringing back the klezmer influences from the first track, building to a fiery conclusion, the band again seek to assert their frantic new sound.

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People might argue this isn’t an album, that it’s more like a six chapter book or chronicle. They’re right - it doesn’t feel like an album, but it is trying to change what an album can be. Plucking inspiration from different genres, their unique style and unorthodox song structure all come together to perfection. This is just the beginning for Black Country, New Road. They have certainly found their sound here, and fans and critics alike will be waiting eagerly for what they’ll surprise us with next.

Featured Image: Maxwell Grainger


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