Ants From Up There is the sophomore album from acclaimed experimental rock outfit Black Country, New Road – equal parts anthemic and introspective, the album deals with grief and heartbreak, all the more poignant after the departure of frontman Isaac Wood.
Black Country, New Road broke onto the indie and post rock scene with an exciting sound on their 2021 debut and high expectations for a follow-up album. Ants From Up There is in many ways a continuation of the hyper-specific angsty poetry and intricate arrangements of For the first time – albeit with a greater focus on song structure rather than atmosphere. The band quoted their sophomore effort as being “sad, epic and possibly more universally likeable”.
The album opens with an energetic string and sax overture that coasts effortlessly into the conceptually chamber-pop single ‘Chaos Space Marine’. It’s a peppy number, bright with staccato piano and unpredictable tempo changes, narrating escapism through its Warhammer theme whilst alluding to personal heartbreak. References to pop culture are numerous throughout the record – notably “Billie Eilish style” – rooting the album in a current realism. ‘Concorde’ is more of a slow-burner and in many ways, the conceptual heart of the album. The track is nothing short of a masterpiece. It juxtaposes the fine delicacy of Wood’s hushed vocals and Ellery’s meandering mandolin in the verses with an almost raucous emotional crescendo, and a circular chord progression, undulating like the narrator’s unwavering, self-destructive love for the subject, as embodied in ‘Concorde’.
Emotional potency continues throughout the record. ‘Bread Song’ is rooted in the everyday – “this place is not for any man nor particles of bread” sings Wood with devastating wit – another track that masterfully builds tension whilst maintaining tenderness with bleating saxophone and carefully-placed percussion. Next is the Kurt Vile inspired ‘Good Will Hunting’ — infectious and melodramatic, marked by jaunty rhythms and yet more sharp, percussive elements – here Wood gives his most impassioned vocal performance.
Tender moments are frequently positioned beside cacophony – ‘Haldern’ is a good example of this, and was born from an improvisational session. The song flows like a river. It begins soft and ends with eruptive dissonant violin and saxophone. ‘Mark’s Theme’ is a touching tribute to saxophonist Lewis Evans’ uncle who passed away a year before the album’s release. Evans’ solo glides beautifully over twinkling piano and murky bass. The track simultaneously sounds like a film score and a spontaneous, informal expression of grief.
The tail end of the album sees the band take a more impressionistic approach. ‘The Place Where He Inserted the Blade’ is richly emotive. Wood narrates a feeling of codependency over an exquisite waltz of soft woodwinds, guitar licks and the camaraderie of chorus vocals. Ending tracks ‘Snow Globes’ and ‘Basketball Shoes’ are much longer and instrumental-focused. The former has an arresting repetition and builds gradually over its fugal-inspired nine minutes featuring an explosive drum solo. In many ways, the closing track is the ribbon that ties the album together, with lyrical and musical references to earlier tracks. ‘Basketball Shoes’ features various movements, some more hushed, but all lead to the grand finale of crashing drums and blaring guitars. Lyrical content here is cryptic but we see Wood reference the failed relationship, or Concorde, and even allude to the Oedipus complex in the latter part of the song.
Ants From Up There is devastatingly beautiful. It leaves you in awe. Never have I heard a current band create an album so arrestingly produced and emotionally overwhelming. Ants From Up There is perhaps more than a Gen-Z Funeral. It is a fusion of post-rock, jazz and klezmer and a near-perfect outpouring of anger, sorrow and wit. Thank you for the music Isaac (and friends).
Image credit: Paul Hudson//Flickr, CC BY 2.0