Black Country, New Road are one of those bands who appear in your life suddenly and then never leave you, in sound or in spirit. The young septet from Cambridgeshire make a din so cacophonous that it could cause tinnitus, for a start. But mainly it’s just hard not to get swept up in the swell of vibrant energy they create. In one sense they are such a coherent, tight-knit group they almost seem fictional – their press shots make them look like a reboot cast of My So-Called Life – and in another their chaotic, effervescent sound seems to have emerged by happy accident.
Black Country, New Road’s debut album, For the First Time, which consists of six tracks between five and ten minutes in length, confirms the group’s autonomy. The first sound on the album is a single drum pounding the rhythm of a heartbeat, which gives way to a gradually building instrumental. Vocals enter at track two (“Athen’s, France”) and the record moves through juddering, meandering and accelerating rhapsodies that at their softest sound like mournful post-rock (“Athen’s, France” opens with tense guitar and vocals full of anxiety) and at their most extreme like atonal free improvisation (cries of “It’s black country out there!” on “Science Fair” build over chaotic screeching saxophone and distorted guitar) – the aural manifestation of what it might feel like for your head to explode.
The band have played together in some form since 2017. An earlier octet, Nervous Conditions, split in 2018 when then-lead singer was accused of sexual assault. Six members of that group reformed as Black Country, New Road, and gained their seventh member, guitarist Luke Mark, in 2019. Now they are fronted by vocalist and guitarist Isaac Wood (though perhaps “fronted” isn’t really the right word, given that in their live performances they have struggled to fit on stage, playing side-on to the audience), whose sometimes quavering, half-spoken baritone cuts through the keys, guitars, drums, violin and saxophone with snippets of monologue. Two much-hyped 2019 singles, “Athen’s, France” and “Sunglasses”, have been re-recorded to form the scaffolding for newer material on the album.
Black Country, New Road are often compared to the earlier rock band Slint (as they know, referring in “Science Fair” to “The world’s second-best Slint tribute act”). Although they do undoubtedly recall Slint’s dissonant, electric-guitar-and-sporadic-vocal sound, For the First Time is influenced by a broad musical spectrum: LCD Soundsystem, Battles, Bellowhead, BadBadNotGood, Kamasi Washington and even Jewish folk music (which saxophonist Lewis Evans and violinist Georgia Ellery have experience playing). There’s almost a touch of Morrissey in some of the more melancholic-sounding recitative: “…with frail hands she grips the Nutribullet/And the bite of its blades reminds me of a future that I am in no way part of”, sing-speaks Wood on “Sunglasses”.
Most of all, the vocal style of Wood’s esoteric musings recalls Nick Cave on the 2016 album Skeleton Tree. There is a booming resonance to his deep voice that can make even mundane words seem poignant. But where Cave’s lyrics have a more elevated, poetic style, For the First Time is littered with digital vocabulary and Gen Z references: there’s a “mainline to the UE BOOM”, “matcha shots”, “micro influencers” and calls to “leave Kanye out of this”. At one point, in “Athen’s, France”, they semi-quote the singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers (“Why don’t you sing with an English accent?/Well, I guess the children get what they wanted now”).
This may sound slightly exhausting – pretentious, even – but it works. This is partly because For the First Time has a rare musical quality: a sense of humour. It comes through in gestures such as silly, repetitive synths, the lyrics (“I was just covered in bubbles of methane gas”) and the grandiose mood swings that occur within most of the songs. The ten-minute-long “Sunglasses” opens with distorted, headache-inducing noise before dropping, suddenly, into a clear, reflective acoustic guitar riff and Wood’s deadpan voice: “Welcome to the best new six-part Danish crime drama.”
For the First Time also manages to ensure that “Black Country, New Road” is more than a collective noun for precocious early-20-somethings in baggy trousers by containing moments of real poignancy. The penultimate song, the downtempo “Track X”, is a highlight: it opens with understated guitar and pizzicato violin, clearing the air after the musical argument that closed “Sunglasses”. The vocal enters slowly, with sincerity (“You’ve got great hips”). The track builds with syncopated saxophone, dissonant but gentle strings, and eventually, for the only time on the album, female backing vocals. In one line Wood seems to answer a question we’ve been asking ourselves for half an hour: “I know it was funny, but I was struggling too.”
The up-tempo frenzies that bookend For the First Time are not just for show. They are injections of energy into music that, given its over-the-top instrumentation and genre-mashing, is already maximalist – an increasingly uncommon approach. And so while the constant lyrical irony might be occasionally wearing, For the First Time is a debut that shows Black Country, New Road as one of the most confident, exciting and original British bands to have emerged in years.
[See also: Emily Bootle reviews Rhye’s cosy album Home]