Black Country, New Road are a seven piece band from London. Six of them were in a band called Nervous Condition which split in 2018 after sexual misconduct accusations were made against their lead singer, Connor Browne. The rest of the band reconvened with a new member and a new name. Their bass guitarist, Tyler Hyde is the daughter of Karl Hyde from Underworld. “For The First Time” is their first album and was released on February 5th, 2021. The album has received very positive reviews. Kitty Empire in The Guardian described it as one of the best albums of the year (although how she can say this in February is unclear). Luke Cartledge of NME stated that the album was a triumph.
Personally, I love this album although the first couple of times I heard it, I found it hard going and occasionally impenetrable. Further listening has allowed me to enjoy the improvisational jazz qualities of the saxophone playing, the occasional raw intensity of the vocals (which are more spoken than sung) but, above all, the never dull, always interesting nature of the ever changing moods of the songs. Peter feels that they don’t look like a rock band but, personally, I see nothing wrong with short hair. In fact, at the moment, I yearn for it. Wikipedia labels it “post punk”; I would call it progressive or maybe “short-haired progressive”.
The first track, “Instrumental” is a five minute instrumental in which the musicians enter one by one to build an exciting layer of sound. A drum beat is accompanied by a determined bass accentuation which is followed by a simple keyboard riff. This allows a guitar to noodle before saxophone plays a wheezing solo over the top of it all. As the song develops into a track reminiscent of the instrumental passage in “Darkness 11/11” by Van Der Graaf Generator, the excitement and tempo increase to provide a cacophony of noise that ends suddenly but purposefully. The UNCUT review suggested the track is something that might be produced by a klezmer rave band. After I looked up the word klezmer and saw that it is traditional instrumental music produced by Jews from Central Europe, I could see that the description might be pretty accurate but only if I had ever heard klezmer music before. Maybe the description simply plays into my prejudices.
“Athens/France” is over six minutes long and introduces Isaac Wood’s vocals. Whilst the music is complex, there are no sudden key changes to jolt the listening pleasure. The mood constantly switches between a frantic intensity to a more reflective temperateness. I was reminded of the more interesting Sides Two of “Lizard” by King Crimson and “Valentyne Suite” by Colosseum insofar as the imagination and complexity of the music is made accessible by the correct audience pleasing decisions taken in the composition.
“Science Fair” is another five minute song. Isaac Wood’s deep voice describes his experiences in a Cambridge science fair in which he meets a girl but accidentally sets her on fair, thus preventing him from leaving with the world’s second best Slint tribute band. As he meets another girl at the Cirque de Soleil, he realised that “it’s black country out there” at which his voice breaks with fear and the violin and saxophone start playing ballistically. It’s very strange and mightily impressive.
“Sunglasses” is nearly ten minutes long and starts with slow, distorted guitar playing in a high wind, provided by May Kershaw’s keyboards. The song develops into a complex argument between two people. The music breaks down completely as he sings “I am so ignorant now”. He recovers his sense of identity as he claims to be a modern Scott Walker or even The Fonz in his sunglasses. Saxophone, violin and urgent drumming provide affirmation. As the other person in the argument replies, she tells him to leave Kanye out of this and also to leave her daddy’s job out of it too. He did, in fact, leave her daddy’s job out of it in the second line. Rather than rhyme “big pharma” with “Danish drama”, he replaced her fathers job with the word “pig” so that the first two lines read “Welcome to the best new six part Danish crime drama/She steams herself in marble rooms, courtesy of Pig”. I’m grateful to someone who calls themselves numbass on the Genius Lyrics website for pointing this out otherwise I would have no idea. I’m not sure whether or not I like such lyrical complexity. I’d be really smug and self-satisfied to make up this puzzling couplet myself but is such “cleverness” appealing or irritating? Confusingly, he sings “big pharma” live but “pig” on the album. Musically, this track starts slowly and builds to excitement, confirming my love of this new band.
In “Track X”, the intensity temporarily diminishes which makes for a sensible serenity in the listening experience although, arguably, this is the least interesting song on the album. There’s more obscurity in the lyrics as he sings “Dancing to Jerskin, I got down on my knees and told you I loved you in front of Black Midi”. Jerskin Fendrix is an avant-pop solo artist and Black Midi are an experimental “noise/math rock band” who gave played with Black Country, New Road, calling themselves Black Midi, New Road. Is it important to know all this to enjoy the music? I think the answer is “No” unless we want to make sense of the lyrics.
The final track is “Opus” which is 8 minutes long in which the tempo switches between mournful and frantic. The review in MOJO makes another reference to klezmer, with particular emphasis on Georgia Ellery’s violin. Once again, Van Der Graaf Generator spring to mind. In 1970, Peter Hamill sung about “total annihilation” before the band went wild on “After The Flood” . In 2021, Isaac Wood sings “What we built must fall to the rising flames” which instigates a cacophonous climax.
This album is yet another example of the hugely interesting, imaginative and entertaining music that is being released every week in these astonishing times.