Artist: Black Country, New Road
Album: For The First Time
Label: Ninja Tune
Back in 2020 when festivals (remember them), were still a thing, I travelled down to a distinctly chilly Bognor Regis in January to attend the wonderful Rockaway Beach. Headlined by John Cale, The Jesus & Mary Chain and Fontaines D.C. it was always going to be a smash, but, as ever, I was keen to discover new bands and new music further down the line up.
Enter stage left, Black Country, New Road. I’ll be honest, initial impressions were not whetting my appetite as the the band took to the stage. Looking on as they nervously tuned their instruments, seemingly trying too hard to look disinterested and cool, I sighed inwardly and expected to hear and see what I’d seen on countless occasions from bands who hardly had their five minutes in the spotlight, let alone fifteen.
Anyway, 30 minutes later I’m actually agog with what I’ve just witnessed. Now I go to countless gigs every year (in normal times) but rarely have I seen a band that makes THAT impact. I won’t say more than that but suffice to say as soon as I got home I was right onto the internet to see if they had any Scottish dates lined up. Yes, Edinburgh in a few weeks – immediately go to book tickets but I guess word had spread, the concert was sold out. Fortunately new dates were quickly added and Glasgow tickets purchased but due to Covid their date at SWG3 has been postponed until December this year. Trust me, if you can get a ticket, do it.
Anyway, in the intervening months since that festival outing, the band have been beavering away perfecting and mastering their debut album release, For The First Time. So, does it live it up the hype?
Again, my initial thoughts were of potential bathos, a fall from the heady heights I’d considered the album would likely be. Why? Well, just the six songs appeared on the track listing. Anyway, 41 minutes later and I’m again revising that assertion – will I ever learn?
The first track, Instrumental, is exactly that and is a bold statement to kick things off. A repetitive and hypnotic organ coupled with a brass section propel the song through to a gasping crescendo. It’s steeped in klezmer tradition and would work well in a film/TV score.
Further on, Science Fair is simply off the scale. Static guitar, shredding white noise creates a sonic aperture, a gaping hole where feedback battles to escape. The brass and the strings compete, seemingly trying to throttle and squeeze the life out of each other. It’s actually quite a disconcerting, claustrophobic track, a skill not many bands can pull off. Having listened to this at full volume (both recommended and not) it felt like my eyes were bleeding and my head was going to explode – just perfect.
Next up is Sunglasses, perhaps the band’s most well known track to date and certainly the one that really pulled me in at Rockaway. Running to almost 10 minutes in length, any song that references The Fonz, Richard Hell, Scott Walker and Kanye just has to be worth a listen. The song is split into two, perhaps three distinct parts and has echoes of Bowie’s Blackstar, espousing wonk jazz against a backdrop of burgeoning violin and a bursting bass line. One clear memory from the concert was Isaac Wood’s vocal which teetered on the edge of collapse, emotive, brittle and delicate yet entirely captivating and pleasingly that’s evident here on the recorded version too.
Track X brings a more melodic feel, Wood’s voice deep and reflective in an almost spoken word tone while the music is led by uplifting saxophone and orchestral piano.
Opus closes the album and is a return to the klezmer style opener, a perfect bookend encompassing saxophone, violin and boorish drums, it’s an epic, gargantuan tune.
Black Country, New Road are a band who defy comparison, they make music which is difficult to pigeon hole, they are uncomfortable, unpredictable and unprecedented. Check them out.