Album review: Black Country, New Road cement themselves as standard bearers

What occurs when a band loses a lead vocalist, frontman or principal songwriter? British post-punk phenoms Black Country, New Road (BC,NR) will be searching for the answer, as they have lost all three with the departure of one man.

Days before the release of their sophomore album "Ants from Up There," lead singer Isaac Wood announced his surprise exit from one of the hottest acts in indie music.

Wood put BC,NR on the map with his Slint-esque talking, almost conversational vocal style and his bizarre lyrics ranging from the mundane aspects of the modern human condition to the philosophical and political.

The band's debut album, "For the first time," set the world of indie music ablaze in the early months of 2021. On "Ants," the now-former septet showcases their evolution from post-rock wunderkinds to bona fide indie stars.

"Ants from Up There" is a masterclass of jazzy, freeform and experimental yet accessible modern rock. The band has broken the mold set by their debut, abandoning (for the most part) the post-punk elements and setting a new benchmark for indie music in the 2020s.

No discussion of this album can be had without recognizing the consistent theme throughout much of the track list: love. Unrequited, real, crumbling love and imaginary love. Various tracks are centered around this idea of love in the modern age.

Take "Concorde" as an example. Wood sings about a breakup and compares this relationship to a Concorde jet, a discontinued supersonic aircraft that was costly to maintain and had several faults. At times, he is optimistic, saying that he "was breathless upon every mountain, just to look for your light," but realizes the inherent absurdity in remaining with this person who clearly cannot stand him. Still, he remains entranced. "I was made to love you, can't you tell?" Wood croons in a desperate voice.

The narrator of "Bread Song" wrestles with a similar issue. "Okay, well I just woke up," Wood sings in a hushed voice, barely a whisper, "and you already don't care." The narrator takes us through instances of attempted vulnerability with his partner, to no avail.

All this is not to say that there exist no moments of genuine happiness. "Good Will Hunting" is an upbeat, almost joyful track, featuring hard to pin down lyrics about starships, "traversing the Milky Way" and imagining an idyllic future with a new person. "Chaos Space Marine" may allude to a failing relationship, but remains a high energy, violin laden track about Warhammer 40k.

Much of the acclaim for "Ants" has come from the final three songs in its 10-track, 58-minute run. "The Place Where He Inserted the Blade" is a complex track. Piano, saxophone and flute are featured prominently while Wood sings of making a meal, perhaps following along with a video. He messes it up severely, and implores his significant other to help out. Read between the lines, however, and you find a more depressing ballad about becoming dependent on a relationship. "Good morning," Wood sings, "where is your light? Am I home?"

Throughout the length of the second-to-last track, "Snow Globes," Wood employs a heavy use of metaphorical thinking, possibly about another relationship. While the lyrics are confusing and up to interpretation, drummer Charlie Wayne shines, independent and free from the rest of the track.

There are simply not enough words for "Basketball Shoes," the album's closer. This sprawling, multi-genre and multi-part track runs for nearly 13 minutes, and yet feels far too short. "Basketball Shoes" is BC,NR at their absolute finest, and represents an apotheosis, a pinnacle for modern indie music. It is masterful and all-encompassing of the band's talent both musically and lyrically. The instrumental sections are epic and sweeping, and the lyrics wrap up the whole album with a crushing, heart-wrenching bow. Combine those elements with a tearful and caterwauling performance by Isaac Wood, especially in the track's closing minutes, and you have not only an impeccable send off for this era in the band's history, but one of the finest songs in recent indie music history.

"Ants from Up There" is genius in its instrumentation and lyrics. It is a singular album, even in an era of indie music dominated by post-punk revivalism. Many bands will release albums similar in genre, but few, if any, will reach the peaks set by this current incarnation of Black Country, New Road. Their style may not be universal in its appeal, but for fans of the experimental, "Ants" will go down in history as an instant classic.

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