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Black Country, New Road’s Perilous Triumph

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On Jan. 31, four days before the British band Black Country, New Road released its second album, “Ants From Up There,” its vocalist and lead guitarist, Isaac Wood, suddenly announced he was leaving the group, with a statement suggesting mental health struggles. “I have been feeling sad and afraid too,” Wood announced via social media. “I have tried to make this not true but it is the kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it hard to play guitar and sing at the same time.”

The band canceled a planned tour. Its remaining members have said they will not perform the material written collectively with Wood, but that they would continue making music together, adding, “We’ve already started working on it.”

But the next version of Black Country, New Road can’t help but become a very different band without Wood’s songwriting, lyrics and vocals. On both of its albums, Wood is the band’s frazzled-sounding, acutely self-conscious focal point. There’s usually an anxious quaver in his baritone, and when he raises his voice he reaches a throat-scraping desperation. As the band’s main lyricist, Wood juggles the cryptic and the apparently confessional, the self-lacerating and the absurd. He can sound absolutely tormented; he can also sound like he’s having a bitter laugh at some private joke.

Black Country, New Road released its first singles in 2019, arriving alongside a coterie of virtuosic, genre-scrambling bands including black midi (the two bands have occasionally merged onstage as Black Midi, New Road) and Squid. On its albums, Black Country, New Road is a seven-piece band. Its musical core is the riffy, dissonant drive of post-punk; in “Science Fair,” an early single, Wood refers to being in a band that’s “the world’s second-best Slint tribute act.” But with a lineup that includes saxophone and violin, the band’s tentacles also extend into klezmer, British folk, prog-rock, Minimalism, free jazz and more. Its songs flaunt wayward, episodic structures, rarely ending up remotely near where they began; they sound as if anyone in the group might grab the wheel at any moment.

Electric guitars, bristling or smoldering, largely defined the band’s 2021 debut album, “For the First Time”; harking back to the post-punk of Slint and the Fall, Wood talk-sang through many of the songs. On “Ants From Up There,” he usually turns to melody instead, while the band toys with chamber-pop and more pastoral sounds. It dials back the guitar distortion and drumbeats and brings acoustic instruments into the foreground; it invokes folk-rock, parlor songs and waltzes. The new songs are still plaints and puzzles, just quieter ones (at least most of the time).

“Chaos Space Marine” opens with something like a traditional fiddle tune, pausing for flourishes by individual players: trills, plinks, hoots, quick runs. Wood sings, dramatically but obliquely, about war, sailing, “becoming a worm” and coming home. The band could be a pit orchestra for a surreal operetta, dropping into a stately half time for a finale that concludes with Wood declaiming, “Billie Eilish style/Concorde will fly/Ignore the hole I’ve dug again.”

Those verbal nuggets recur, equally enigmatically, in other songs on the album. An abject love song, “Haldern,” begins with “Ignore the hole I’ve dug again” and goes on, through rippling Minimalist patterns, a wrenching crescendo and a final, brittle thinning out, to praise “the only one I’ve known/Who broke the world so quietly.” There’s a waltz called “Concorde” that addresses someone named Concorde as a lifelong companion, lover or apparition. And the album’s closer, “Basketball Shoes,” open with Wood singing, “Concorde flies in my room/Tears the house to shreds.”

Stretching past 12 minutes, “Basketball Shoes” moves through elegy, march, a quasi-jig, near-stillness, giant tolling unisons and a finale that’s equal parts triumph and despair; it also tucks in the musical motif that started the album in “Intro.” Throughout “Ants From Up Here,” and through the course of every song, Black Country, New Road tests and reinvents itself, creating music that sounds both intricately plotted and precarious. Just how precarious wasn’t clear until Wood left the band.

Black Country, New Road
“Ants From Up There”
(Ninja Tune)

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