Three days before Ants From Up There dropped, I got an email notification letting me know that their show in Manchester had been cancelled. I was disappointed. But I was also skint and, as the idea of having £20 back in my pocket settled in, I felt a bit of relief. For The First Time had been a good album, one that made me willing to part with that £20 in the first place, but I wasn’t going to lose any sleep about not seeing it performed on stage. I also hadn’t listened to any of the singles from Black Country, New Road’s sophomore album at that point so had no reason to suspect that I’d be any more upset about missing out on watching the band perform them live. After a single listen to Ants From Up There I was bereft. Not only because this is a savagely open, raw, and emotional album – but also because the idea that this version of Black Country, New Road may never play on stage together again is almost too much to bear. This is an album that should send a band in to the stratosphere, not one that should signal them to the limp from the stage.
But enough of that. Let me talk about why I think this album is something incredibly special, rather than focusing on the sad news of frontman and lyricist Isaac Wood’s departure from the band. While For The First Time featured mostly raucous and chaotic songs that could largely be secreted somewhere in the genre known as post-punk, it did also feature ‘Track X’ – a song which showed how capable Black Country, New Road are at paring things back and giving a track time to build and grow. Ants From Up There uses that talent for a whole album.
The album is a masterclass in using tension and release in your music, both in terms of the tracklisting and down to the levels of the individual songs. When ‘Concorde’ and ‘Bread Song’ have you down on your knees, ‘Good Will Hunting’ will come along to give you a kick of tubthumping catharsis. The chaos that ends ‘Haldern’ gives way to the gentle thrum of ‘Mark’s Theme’ before, again, things are let loose on the gorgeous ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade.’ And while the lengthy final track might be too much for some people, it is the pitch perfect way to end an album that has managed its twist and turns exceptionally. I can’t think of an album that is more successful in its arrangement.
Even with that in mind, though, it is a few of the individual songs that really show us how special this band are. ‘Bread Song’ is one of the most despondently beautiful tracks in recent memory, starting off slowly and with sparse instrumentation, telling a hauntingly poetic story of an awkward social encounter, ramping up the tension, and then breaking into the unhappy release of the song’s second half. I got chills the first time I heard the percussive break after the first bridge, and I still get them now. Fuck, I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it.
‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’ is equally successful, although wildly different. This is perhaps the most chaotic song on the album, but there is never a moment when it is anything other than organised chaos. There’s no way there could be so many layers, so many different instruments, so many dips and swells, without there being a real sense of control holding it all together. Even when this song feels like it’s losing it, it knows it’s purpose. And the same can be said of the sprawling, 12 and a half minute closer ‘Basketball Shoes.’ There will be readers and listeners who feel this one crosses the line, but in an album that has kept us guessing, that has played with our emotions and sucked us in only to spit us back out, this ever-changing track is the perfect ending.
I’ve obliterated my word count without even mentioning the heartbreaking ‘Concorde’, the frantic ‘Chaos Space Machine’, or even the one track that doesn’t quite do it for me in the way that the other nine do (‘Snow Globes’). I also haven’t said enough about the lyrical mastery throughout the album, but if I started quoting the best lines we’d be here for hours. And, of course, the most impressive thing about Ants From Up There is how so many band members, playing so many instruments, and trying out so many styles, manage to sound so tight knit and together – how everything fits so well.
Which make it even sadder that this could be the last record they make together as a full unit. It is hard to imagine how they go forward as Black Country, New Road without Isaac Wood as his stamp is all over this album and he is a big part of what makes it so unique and interesting. But I hope they do. A band that can make an album as captivating and addictive as this deserve to keep going for decades. Fingers crossed we haven’t heard the last of them. But if they do happen to be one of those bands that go out with a bang after just two albums, Ants From Up There guarantees that we’ll still all be talking about them when they’re old and grey.
Words by Fran Slater