“Everything a rock band can do”; in hindsight, the phrasing of our rapturous review of London group Black Country, New Road’s first album For The First Time treads close to damning them with faint praise. The Slint comparisons are written out by now, but truthfully the primary connective tissue between the two acts was the pitch-perfect synchronisation of scrappiness and vision, a mode of rock creativity that promises a brilliant, gleaming moment, but not necessarily longevity. And yet, here they are a year later, and when your first album is one of the best UK rock albums of the 21st century, where do you go from there?
In a twist, Ants From Up There is neither the stylistic overhaul hinted at by the group themselves, nor the logical next step; perhaps detrimentally, it’s largely more of the same. What’s keenly felt is the different circumstances of the album’s recording. For The First Time is a road album, tweaked and trimmed in sweaty rooms up and down the country. Conversely, Ants From Up There faced the full severity of lockdowns and social distancing, a ‘studio’ album that occasionally sounds like it rarely left. The folk-ballad likes of ‘Haldern’ and ‘Concorde’ are soaked in the taut, atmospheric glory that drove ‘Sunglasses’ and ‘Athens, France’ before them, and you figure it’s because they house the same well-travelled, spacious dynamism, as though the rapt reaction of an enthralled crowd made its way in-between the chords. What’s more, there must be something wrong if rapturous 13-minute track ‘Basketball Shoes’, a long-standing live staple and fan favourite, goes down effortlessly while shorter tracks like ‘Good Will Hunting’ seem interminable.
There’s still something encouraging about a group who, no matter how hard they try, simply cannot write a conventional rock song. More often than not, attempts lead to interesting trajectories of almost-pop near-misses. ‘Chaos Space Marine’, the only full-fledged song on Ants From Up There to align with the three-and-a-half-minute principle, is a low-light of the album, a casualty of the album’s over-egged approach, so tightly packed with BC,NR’s biggest ideas – mariachi brass lines, piano rock pulses, Isaac Wood’s lyrical comprehensiveness, a section that curiously recalls a chorus chant from an early Arcade Fire song – that no single aspect gets the airing it needs to linger in the brain. It’s curious as a lead single, but you can’t knock the attempt.
Ants From Up There is not simply a repeat, but neither is it wholly new. However, there’s enough here to give BC,NR the benefit of the doubt. Few albums strike with the force of For The First Time; maybe Ants From Up There will just take some time to leave a mark.
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