Being a Black Country, New Road fan has, up until now, been an exercise in patience. The elusive seven-piece band, hailing from Cambridge and now living in London, only released two singles in the period from January 2019 to October 2020. Being an avid fan thus entailed scouring the depths of the internet to find live performances of unreleased tracks, watching as the media hype around them grew. I was therefore disappointed to find out that their debut album, For the first time, would only contain six tracks, two of which were re-recordings of previously released singles. However, giving the album its first listen through, its length did indeed feel adequate. The tracks are not your trimmed 3-minute pop song, but rather sprawling numbers with multiple sections, giving the album a play time of 40 minutes – pretty standard for most albums. From here, though, the normality ends.

“The tracks are not your trimmed 3-minute pop song, but rather sprawling numbers with multiple sections”

What is remarkable about the band is their combination of genres and sounds. In this album you’ll find elements of klezmer , the classical tradition and post-punk. Yet, the group aren’t simply undecided novices shuffling from one genre to the other. Rather, they have their own distinct sound, characterised particularly by the frequent shifts from a chaotic layering of sounds to soft contemplative reflections.

The album begins with “Instrumental”, a clear expression of the group’s musical talent. While the opening sounds of tinny keyboard felt a bit unsubstantial, it was the introduction of Georgia Ellery’s soaring violin line that really kicked things off, especially when harmonised against saxophonist Lewis Evans. The track becomes almost trance-like, kept together by drummer Charlie Wayne, whose contributions are a frequent delight.

Most controversial among the fanbase is the re-recording of loved singles “Athen’s, France” and “Sunglasses”. The band have adopted a more sanitised approach, removing all swear words along with singer Isaac Wood’s moaning and confrontational screeching. It seems a shame to have removed some of the wittier lyrics, such as my previous favourite ‘she likes pop culture, she has thank u next stuck in her head’, the reference to Ariana Grande a refreshing break from the group’s often niche and culturally selective allusions. I do, however, love the new outro to this song, a sweet and building saxophone, fit to soundtrack a stirring procession. The vocals in this track are also more melodic and restrained, adding an element of vulnerability.

“Sunglasses” has also been re-imagined, with an added minute-long intro of guitar distortion. This track, like the later song “Science Fair”, is ambitious and squawking, with poetic lyricism and claustrophobic instrumentation. Isaac sings of ‘references, references, references’, and this is what most of the lyricism consists of, a bunch of clever and knowing references, such as the line ‘and fled from the stage with the world’s second-best Slint tribute act’, which alludes to the oft-made comparison between them and the 90s band Slint. Indeed, I’ve read theories that have described this lyricism, with its references to ‘Bedales’ school and ‘NutriBullets’, as an attempt at postmodernism, using irony to reject the modern ideals of consumerism and luxury. Such a theory is more appealing than taking the lyrics at face-value, which can sound like a group of music school kids grabbing at privileged terminology.

“[“Track X”] comes as welcome respite from the previous verbal and instrumental tumult”

Too much clever grandiosity can become tiring and leave listeners feeling detached. That’s why “Track X”, with its more sincere narrative about young love, comes as welcome respite from the previous verbal and instrumental tumult. Bucking the trend of sonic rise and fall, this track remains at a constant pace, with gentle piano riff and pulsing violin throughout. It is a truly lovely piece, taking timeless notions of love (finding someone who can ‘turn out the inside, inside out’) and placing them in a localised setting, as Isaac’s relationship develops while watching the shows of South London favourites, Jerkskin Fendrix and Black Midi.

We’re not allowed much of a breather, however, before we’re onto the closing track “Opus” which, as the name suggests, is a rich and impressive piece. It builds on motifs from the opening track, adding delicious arpeggiated lines and a melancholic sax. Isaac ponders on ‘what we built from black country ground’, a reflection on the growing hype the band have acquired, before crying out ‘what we’ve built must fall’. Indeed, the carefully layered track then breaks down, with tortured screams and agitated orchestration. The first time I heard it, in the early hours of its Friday release, I remember sitting bolt upright in bed, grinning from ear to ear. This is truly a tour de force and the highlight of the album.


Mountain View

Lessons in Lyricism

There is much that is off-putting about this album. Isaac’s lead vocals are not easy listening. They are cracked and wounded with a lack of range comparable to Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest. The lengthy tracks are not made to be ‘streamable’, and indeed make most sense within the context of the album (an unmarketable move that contrasts with their corporate, faceless branding consisting of generic stock photos). If you can get past these initial grievances, however, you’ll find a group that is exciting, uncompromising, and inimitable. This is not an album that is made to be universally appealing, but rather an authentic artistic statement from a group of clearly talented individuals. The fact that they have almost mastered such a unique sound so early in their career only makes me excited for their future releases. They are certainly a band who live up to their great expectations.