By Claire Russell
After frontman Isaac Wood’s shocking departure from Black Country, New Road just four days before the release of their new album, Ants From Up There, anticipation for it reached an incredible high; fans were eager to hear what may very well be his final project with the group. Along with an outpouring of concern about Wood’s mental health, the Slint comparisons were inevitable. His departure mirrored that of Ethan Buckler who also left his band abruptly before the release of their sophomore album. It didn’t help that Black Country, New Road jokingly referred to themselves as “the world’s second-best Slint tribute act” in their 2021 track “Science Fair.” Nonetheless, upon the album’s February 4th release, it immediately became clear that there was nothing derivative about it.
Although the band’s signature musical complexity, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and emotive talking-style vocals remain intact, Ants From Up There is a step above and beyond For the first time. Every track has a richness that proves they’ve found their footing. It’s also slightly more catchy and accessible than For the first time, which could be because of the increasing influence of Arcade Fire on their work. I won’t complain about the band finding a sound that makes it easier for them to break into the mainstream, but I hope they resist the temptation to dilute their post-rock stylings and individuality in favor of conforming to popular baroque indie rock. We have plenty of Arcade Fire replicas in the music scene today, but we only have one Black Country, New Road.
The thing that makes Ants From Up There more accessible than their debut is its sheer power. Nearly every track has at least one climax that boasts the band’s technical prowess and passion. “Chaos Space Marine,” one of the singles and currently the most streamed song on the album, has the explosive chorus of a Pulp song. “Snow Globes” has a stunning instrumental break about six minutes into its nine-minute runtime — the element of surprise is one of the band’s strong suits when it comes to songwriting. I also admire the consistency in quality throughout the entirety of the album, too. Although four singles were released ahead of the record, the strongest songs are the previously unheard ones: “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade,” “Basketball Shoes,” and “Mark’s Theme" — an instrumental tribute to saxophonist Lewis Evans’ late uncle and huge supporter of the band — are particularly beautiful. I can only imagine how transcendental they would have been to experience live.
Despite the band’s slight sonic change on this record, their lyrics maintain their trademark style of combining pop culture references (i.e. homages to Billie Eilish and The Killers) with biting vulnerability (“I was made to love you, can’t you tell?”). The raw emotion is even more impactful considering Wood's recent exit. The songwriter has a talent for taking slice-of-life anecdotes and turning them into heartbreaking symbols of relationships in decline. For example, “Bread Song” uses leaving toast crumbs in someone’s bed as a metaphor for having a partner reject their attempts at intimacy. The blurred lines between seriousness and irony in his lyrics seem to fall away in this album, leaving the listener to experience his intense emotions without trying to analyze them.
The grandiose ending of “Basketball Shoes,” the final track, feels like a bittersweet goodbye. Although the band has reassured fans that they will continue to make music, they are undeniably entering a new era without Wood. Ants From Up There is a career high, a feat that would be difficult to follow if not for the immense talent of every member of Black Country, New Road. I am confident in their ability to continue to make incredibly innovative music in the future. I am also confident that this album will be hailed as a classic for years to come.