“We were really, really hyped making this record,” says Lewis Evans of Black Country, New Road. “We all love every single moment of this album.”
Most bands, having been at the centre of a whirlwind of hype and critical acclaim, would be happy to stick to a winning formula for repeat success but creative stagnation is of zero interest to BC,NR who have swiftly returned with a follow album that takes yet another bold and innovative musical leap.
Their debut, For the first time, is a 2021 Album of the Year, receiving ecstatic reviews and picking up a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize, and the band have harnessed the momentum from that record and run full pelt into their second. On their debut album, the band (Evans, May Kershaw, Charlie Wayne, Luke Mark, Isaac Wood, Tyler Hyde and Georgia Ellery) melded klezmer, post-rock, indie and an often intense spoken word delivery. On Ants From Up There they have expanded on this unique concoction to create a singular sonic middle ground that traverses classical minimalism, indie-folk, pop, alt rock and a distinct tone that is already unique to the band.
Given the incredible acclaim for the band’s debut some second album jitters would be forgiven, or perhaps expected, but that’s not the case here, such is the laser focus on forward momentum. “I understand how that may be for some bands,” says Evans. “You get all of this buzz around you and if you still haven’t come up with your new sound, you can really start to pander to what you think people want and that’s not always good. I think if we did that people would want a record that sounded even more like Slint.”
Tracks such as “Chaos Space Marine” combine sprightly violin, rhythmic piano, and stabs of saxophone to create something infectiously fluid that bubbles to a rounding crescendo. It’s a track that Wood calls “the best song we’ve ever written.” It’s a chaotic yet coherent creation that ricochets around unpredictably but also seamlessly. “We threw in every idea anyone had with that song,” says Wood. “So the making of it was a really fast, whimsical and silly approach - like throwing all the shit at the wall and just letting everything stick.”
Throwing every idea the band has into something is symbolic of an album bursting with ideas and zealous creativity. “Bread Song” might be rooted in something hugely relatable and every day - bread crumbs in bed - but the lyrics were tweaked and thought about in various stages over a four year period. And musically - a song that is tender and stripped back but swells up in beautiful moments that engulf the listener like crashing waves - it contains equal depth. “We wanted to do the first chorus with no time signature,” says Wood. “I went to see Steve Reich do Music for 18 Musicians and there’s a piece where a bar length is determined by the breadth of the clarinet player, they just play until they run out of breath. I wanted to try that with the whole band, where we don’t look at each other, we don’t make too many cues, we just try and play without time - but together.”
“Haldern” is an attempt to record the spirit and intuition of spontaneous improvisation. It stems from a live stream performance at Haldern Pop Festival in Germany. “Every now and then in the middle of a gig we’ll do some improvisation because it can be really fun,” says Wood. “When we did it this time we basically wrote a whole song, which is the first time we’ve ever done that.” It’s another song from the album that aims to capture the magic of the moment, a one-off musical creation that can never be entirely replicated again. Whereas the gently stirring “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” pays homage to late period Bob Dylan. “I started writing this in response to, or heavily inspired by, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”,” says Wood of the 2020 Dylan track. “The whole weird bluesy loungy thing where all the instruments blend into one another really appealed to me.”
“Concorde” swings from one of the most tender moments on the album - opening with tip-tap drums, twisting guitar lines and Wood’s almost whisper-soft delivery - into one of its most joyous and eruptive. It captures the band exploring a vast range of dynamics as they harness the power of tension and release, exercising potency in not only the explosive crescendo but also the restrained build up. Named after the film but lyrically removed from it, “Good Will Hunting”, is driven by unshakably infectious melodies that snake throughout the song. Stabs of drums build things up in punchy bursts as the melody weaves in and out before a final burst of crunchy guitar fires it home with some of Wood’s most intense vocal work on the album. Much like the lyrics to the chorus, consisting of a bunch of made up quotes aimed to mirror multiple people conversing at once, the result is something that feels fluid yet unpredictable.
The powerful closing one-two of “Snow Globes” and “Basketball Shoes” sees the band shift between delicacy and enormity, finding them at their most potent and arresting, as well as joyous and triumphant. This sense of ecstatic joy, exuberance and euphoria the band are tapping into can be heard throughout, and is also reflected in Wood’s move away from the spoken word into a singing voice that carefully swings between quiet restraint and stirring zest. “Basketball Shoes” - a fan favourite and a staple of the live set for some time - was the scattered seed that soon flowered into an album. “It’s the whole basis and blueprint for the album,” says Wood.
To make this bold, expressive and expansive follow-up the band retreated to the Isle of Wight for a three-week stay. The recording was done with producer Sergio Maschetzko, who is also the head sound engineer at London venue the Lexington, along with engineer David Granshaw. “They were both completely fundamental to how it ended up sounding,” says Wood, with Evans adding: “We’re quite a difficult band to record because we have very high standards and expectations of our own playing. We have a very particular sound in our head of what we want to sound like so it’s really difficult for us to decide when the take is the take. It was really helpful to have Serge there as a witness to it all - I think if we didn’t have him in there we’d probably have the most perfect takes but that were lacking energy.”
A sense of universal celebration is clearly taking place within the band and this feeling is also mirrored in the intention of the album - to be something of a unifier. “We are slowly trying to make our music really accessible,” says Evans. “You don’t need to make weird sounding music to make weird music. There’s not much in alternative music that is digestible and accessible while still being quite strange. Whereas you get a lot of that in pop music, a lot of artists make really weird music when you pick it apart but it still just sounds like perfect pop. We really liked the idea of doing that.”
Making music that is more accessible while retaining an innovative approach is something that has come from an enhanced sense of ease in the band. “The first time you do the album thing you’re very wary,” says Wood. “We didn’t get whisked up in it all by getting super excited, we kind of did the opposite: we were very careful and cautious. Learning from that experience, those things that you’re really stressed about don’t really matter too much. It’s more of a comfort now, there’s less tension because each specific decision means, in a way, less to us. We’re less picky about shit. That’s allowed us to be more comfortable and to just make music.”
The result is an album that is cohesive and very much a full body of work. “One of the first decisions we made about the album was that it was going to have a bit more of a musical through line,” says Evans. “Something that makes it feel like more of an album.” A repeating musical motif that bookends the album from “Intro” to the closing “Basketball Shoes” plays a key role in creating the glue that holds the record together. “It’s the main basis to “Basketball Shoes” and that was written before the rest of the album,” offers Evans. “We thought it was a great theme and we really like it when that happens in music. There’s a Shostakovich piece where there’s a theme that occurs over a lot of the different movements and another very different example is “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, where you’ve got that through line theme and I love that on albums.”
Lyrically, however, there’s less of a distinct theme, with Wood piecing together a lot from fragmented bits of writing and keeping hold of a lot of placeholder lyrics. “The themes of the lyrics kind of move with the themes of the music,” he says. “Trying to access something slightly more universal while still being interesting. It’s a different time, a different place, a different world and the lyrics probably reflect that. They’re quite different from the first record, but there’s a pretty consistent through line.”
Much like musical motifs appear and reappear, so do snippets of Wood’s lyrics, from digging oneself into a hole, to a character in possession of “Billie Eilish style” to themes of escape, travel and separation via everything from Concorde to Starships. “When you’re in a period of songwriting you’re quite often trying to write the same song and you end up writing it like six or seven times,” explains Wood. “They then spread out but they do sort of come from the same place. It’s like trying to accomplish the same thing over and over again and so the songs end up with themes.”
“Ants From Up There” manages to strike a skilful balance between feeling like a bold stylistic overhaul of what came before, as well as a natural progression. It’s also an album that comes loaded with a deep-rooted conviction in the end result. “We were just so hyped the whole time,” says Hyde. “It was such a pleasure to make. I’ve kind of accepted that this might be the best thing that I’m ever part of for the rest of my life. And that’s fine.”