Album Review: Black Country, New Road – For the first time
Lara Davis reviews Black Country, New Road’s debut album, For the first time.
The experimental band Black Country, New Road, is the Pied Piper of London’s post-punk scene, spearheaded by its sharp-tongued lyrical magician, Isaac Wood. Today, the seven-piece group, denizens of Windmill, Brixton, released their six track album For the first time. Albeit unsatisfyingly brief, this genius debut executes their typical caustic style, swathed in a patchwork of cultural allusions. Serving as what Wood labelled a “true document of our first year”, it offers us a tasty morsel of the future, rather than an epilogue of their musical career. We are left half-full, with a mouthful of grit and ears ringing with jittery oscillations of discordant highs and sonically catatonic lows.
a scene of hypnotic, eternal celebration – a folkish fever dream
Formed only in 2018, the band is still teething, dunking its sticky fingers in the musical melting pot. ‘Instrumental’ delves greedily into the incensed-room of the ancient Yiddish, reviving Klezmer music through enigmatic saxophone and ritualistic drums. The instruments conjure up a scene of hypnotic, eternal celebration – a folkish fever dream. We are suspended in a frenzied prayer, befuddled at an altar, until Evans’ saxophone brings an end to Groundhog Day and returns to their signature discordance, scratching our expectant itch.
Despite this swaggering entrance of bold cultural synthesis, BCNR fall back into the familiar with the inclusion of previously released singles, ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’. These tracks, although tweaked, do not offer ‘deluxe’ versions of themselves, but rather a blasé, flimsy and diluted form of what first got them noticed. ‘Athens, France’ is made more palatable, with Wood’s crooning vocals negating the groans of despair which had littered the original’s instrumental. We are cruelly denied a vessel of teen angst. Yet, the track preserves the same anguished tone which grovels at the past; Wood is suspended between a confession and a curse. Descending into a kind of spoken word, he sardonically mocks the fast-paced consumer culture with its “Matcha shots” and “Cyber-fetish early noughties ‘zine”. Modern-day desensitization and its unpredictable female muse are quietly sniggered at over manic see-saws of agitated noise and careful, self-pitying chords.
The defiantly cynical ‘Sunglasses’ is also re-worked and extended by one minute with a buzzing guitar solo. The eerie yet tender opening of the original is replaced with gravelly timbres, interspersed with cosmic ambient whistles. Just as we veer into the brink of dissociation, the original riff is superimposed and Wood tentatively invades with a lamentation of media culture and the all-engulfing “light of the TV”. The washed-up voice of anachronism wags a finger and for a moment he becomes Morrissey in a narcissistic haze, yearning for the golden days.
Thankfully, the brilliance of ‘Science Fair’ has not been meddled with. It perches harmlessly between the two previous tracks, but refuses to allow itself to go unnoticed. Ruthlessly opening with gritty guitar, it inharmoniously sets the scene of juvenile turmoil at the “Cambridge Science Fair”. The perverse confession piece of an obsessive psychopath is croaked out: “I saw you undressing/ And it was such an intimate performance”. It is a eulogy for the victim of his desires – smouldered by passion and his DIY science project. Ominous drums hold us hostage to Wood’s self-bludgeoning guilt; his deadpan voice grows urgent against an analogue countdown of metronomic cymbals. The soaring viola of Georgia Ellery marks a descent into insanity, stained with the pipe dreams of a mad scientist. A malevolent sci-fi plane is constructed, offering Wood a setting for grit-teeth vocals. Then, the track implodes on itself in the authentic style of hardcore rock, releasing us from our compliance in his tormented penance.
listeners are the band’s infatuated playthings
The tight knot of gratifying agitation which the album has so-far created is curiously severed by ‘Track X’. Sobering and disorientating, it is a bucket of iced water hauling you from the dark abyss of a nightmare (in this case, the metallic wails of ‘Sunglasses’). Any trace of previous egoism is flipped inside out and swapped for yearning. The band deviates from their typical Slint influence and turns towards classical elements. The sneer of art-school enigma dissolves, as the chest is ripped open and the heart crudely exposed. For it is a “love story – love and loss and all that’s in between”, says Wood. It sticks out jauntily, but refreshingly, reminding us that despite hatred of processed foods and silver-spooned lives, we are still human. If this is their emotional Achilles heel, then it is quickly glossed over by ‘Opus’. The magnificent tail-end of the album relapses into the same elated chaos as it began.
For the first time is a visceral and sublime teaser of BCNR’s unknown near-future. Their listeners are the band’s infatuated playthings, riddled with Stockholm syndrome and incarcerated in darkness, for, after all, “it’s black country out there”.