Home Music Black Country, New Road: For the first time

Black Country, New Road: For the first time

Let’s start small. Black Country, New Road are a seven-piece band from London. They play experimental rock. Their experimental rock includes post-rock, post-punk, noise, free jazz, spoken word and Klezmer. They’re from the ashes of Nervous Conditions, a band who dissolved after their vocalist faced troubling allegations. People said Black Country, New Road sounded like Slint. They toured with black midi. They earned a reputation for their tense live performances. People said they sounded like black midi. They released two acclaimed singles, “Sunglasses” and “Science Fair”. They then announced an album and hype ensued. The seven-piece band from London was no longer just a seven-piece band from London.

When Isaac Wood shouts “REFERENCES REFERENCES REFERENCES” on “Science Fair,” he’s acknowledging that his group exists only in references. They were strangled by the reputation of their preceding band, by the closest musical analogue people grasped at straws for, by comparisons to their collaborators and even their prior singles. For the first time could never exist on its own so it is a meditation on references. The band went from being compared to black midi and Slint to name-dropping both, along with The Windmill contemporary Jerskin Fendrix (the most fitting comparison as both employ swaths of personal allusions while maintaining a vulnerability beset by an air of snobbery) and then going full monty by mentioning Kanye West and Scott Walker. They proliferated the chain of references, like how DNA replicates through mitosis and only evolves through transgressions deemed mutations.

So For the first time commences with mutation – a Klezmer track. The eastern european folk is straight laced as a reaction to the numerous comparisons to others and that sentiment that they were simply music school nerds. But their two most oft-mentioned comparisons, Slint & black midi, both fundamentally differ from the group: the former are apocalyptic and fatal, while the latter are corrosive and sniveling. Black Country, New Road would rather sketch dioramas than self-immolate. They’re also more fun than either allusion with their incorporation of horns, instrumental seances and polka interludes.

But the comparisons are an adequate “idea” of how the seven-piece “sounds.” Their approach is centered around lengthy pieces with post-rock crescendos peppered with free jazz eruptions, post-punk grooves and melancholic guitar riffs, all punctuated by Woods’ anxious delivery. “Athens, France” begins as a post-punk vehicle as Wood details lighting himself on fire but soon Black Country, New Road pivot into post-rock territory with lathering strings and guitars. The track’s closing coda morphs from a post-rock/math rock hybrid into a jazz flourish more beautiful than it is performative, and signals their fettling beyond the controversy of their prior band. “Science Fair” is an anxiety attack where the guitars and saxophones strangle each other in the mix and Wood yelps his throat out of his windpipe, transfixed that he exists only to harm those around him, that although Black Country is a real life location, “black country” signifies the futility of identity.

Black Country, New Road craft shoebox dioramas of heightened emotions and twitchy characters. There’s rarely a happy ending, whether it be Wood’s downfall on “Science Fair” or the barnburner finish of the runaway lovers on “Opus.” While tragic, For the first time manages to be something neither Slint nor black midi ever were on record – fun. The London outfit poke their constructed marionettes on “Sunglasses” like they’re toying with a circus clown in a dunk bin. There’s an inkling of enjoyment from the band jamming and Wood getting to act the imposter. The off-kilter “Instrumental” and “Opus” charge with big band energy, like musicians playing for their love of the art, which they were, as both tracks were written on the same day under the desire to just fucking rock a pub. The tracks are tonal opposites but both salivate with a joie-de-vivre at collaborating with like minded kin.

In interviews Black Country, New Road speak on For the first time as if they’ve already surpassed it. They deem it a document of their first 18 months as a band, and if the rerecorded singles are any evidence, they’re eager to grow. Compare Wood’s vocals in the pre-release singles to his presence on the record. Before he was stratified between the spheres of speaking and yelping, a disparity he attributes to the lack of nuance at live shows. For the first time he applies gradation. In-between his spoken delivery and eruptions he finds the space to cradle, like on “Athens, France” when he’s full of morose in singing, “for all I lost in 2018,” a likely reference to Nervous Condition’s fallout. He’s even swaggering on the hilarious second half monologue of “Sunglasses.”

For the first time is the band navigating how to exist as an act built on references. Black Country, New Road are the lovers from “Opus” escaping their small town and heading into black country, where the paths are obstructed and nothing is promised that cannot be later burned. They’re salivating to evolve beyond their own reputation. So take For the first time less as a hype-badgering guitar rock opus edifying the coming of a new genre titan; take it as an album by a seven-piece band from London who want nothing more than to be a seven-piece band from London. And by dousing the expectations and neglecting to connect semi-formed dots to slot Black Country, New Road as something recognizable, you can enjoy the quirkiness of the uptick in Google search results for the term “Klezmer.”

The debut album by the seven-piece band from London is the sound of Black Country, New Road working to navigate expectations and how to exist as an act built on references.
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Outgrowing Shadows

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