In a time when … well, time itself appears to be quite relative something so irrelevant as the word ‘hype’ seems to be out of place. Are we still living in a world where hypes in music still exist or do they belong in a glorified past where music media was still an opinion leader position, musical tates were more separated from each other and the internet didn’t play such a significant role? Some of the older ones will still remember the Mid-00s indie rock wave of British guitar music around bands like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, only to realize that this time already lies 15 years in the past. New waves and bands came and went ever since but those who tend to declare the end of band-driven guitar music should take a closer look at what’s happening in Post-Brexit Britain right now. Groups like Black Midi, Dry Cleaning, Sorry, Squid and Black Country, New Road are currently revitalizing British guitar music by detaching it from any remaining genre limitations and open it for uncompromising, improvised jazz influences and no intentions to deliver suitable streaming-friendly pop gems. And Black Country, New Road might be the finest representatives of this fascinating movement. Just don’t call it a hype.
The seven-piece have been receiving swelling praise from critics since the release of their first two singles Sunglasses and Athens, France, culminating this week in a five-star review for their debut album from The Guardian, the good ol’ NME and well… we love it a lot as well. Part of the praise surrounding the band seems to centre on the unlikely combinations that comprise their music: their press photos of seven relatively clean cut early 20-year old’s and intense post- rock, their lyrics bringing in seemingly bizarre references to NutriBullets meeting hints of klezmer music. In short, nothing about this band seems to make a lot of sense, but they’ve been delighting those who listen regardless.
Recorded over the first lockdown last March, the band have been sitting on For the First Time for a while as it’s release was pushed back from late 2020 to last week. For the First Time is a comparatively short album, containing two tracks already released but cements the band as thrilling newcomers, cementing what they’ve done previously whilst still nodding to what they have in store for the future. I met two of the musicians for a talk about the record and their process of developing the album.
Lockdown’s influence and lack of live performances
The band have been waiting to release the album ever since it was first recorded a little less than a year ago. Black Country, New Road, containing a hefty seven members, usually come up with the music before 22 year old Isaac Wood includes his quivering almost monotone lyrics, although some exceptions exist. ‘‘We usually work quite well together; we know when to hold back and when to push to make a song come together,’’ says the bands violinist Georgia Ellery, trained in jazz violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
One notable absence in their schedule is the lack of live performances. The band note that, as much of their music is created whilst touring and playing live, future projects recorded over this period may have come out differently than expected in an almost inconceivable non Covid-19 world. After garnering much attention from allegedly electric performances in the South London venue The Windmill, the venue for which the band teamed up to raise funds to prevent Covid- related closure last December, the band are eager to return to live performances and having people respond to their music in person. A sense of quiet desperation seeps in, as this band who thrive off playing live remain locked at home for the near future. Yes, their sound is also fascinating enough to be experienced from home but it’s the live cosmos in which it makes the most sense, something they share with other Windmill-related bands like Black Midi and Sorry. In an almost shamanic ritual you see the band break loose, resulting in an intoxicating experience. This new generation isn’t interested in pleasing the Spotify playlist system, they feed from the raw physical experience of their live concerts and the connection with the audience. Needless, so say this is a horrible time for these folks. Still, they are looking forward to people streaming their album at home. The wait for the release of For the First Time has been lengthy and talking to the band members on the eve of its release, the excitement at its final release is palpable, with plans being made over Zoom on how best to celebrate.
Describing the indescribable
Underpinning their almost carnivalesque approach to post-(indie)-rock is the band members musical backgrounds. Half self-taught and the rest classically trained, the album includes influences as diverse as Jewish klezmer music, most easily heard in the albums opening tune, titled Instrumental combined with free form jazz and post-rock under a broad ‘indie-rock’ umbrella.
Attempts by journalists to describe the bands musical style through genre boundaries – or even describe it at all, come across as futile at worst and slightly pointless at best. As Ellery notes, the band don’t tend to disagree when it comes to making the music for their songs, and this synchronization comes through in the record whose value can be said to lie in making seven people, each essentially just following their musical instinct, sound refined.
Part of their intrigue seems to come from inciting intrigue without really trying to seem intriguing at all. Those already following the band and their music would have already heard two songs on their album which, with the album being only 40 minutes long, would mean that fans will have already heard a quarter of their new music. Promotional pictures and personal interviews are sparse (they don’t even appear in their own music videos) and questions concerning the meaning of the album’s cryptic lyrics – arguably the most personal aspect of the music, are usually deftly batted away. ‘’”I wouldn’t try to define or make some meaning out of the lyrics,” the band members keep telling me during my call.
Indeed, the lyrics make little of an immediately understandable storyline put together, and risk bordering on pretentious before being saved by clever one-liners and the excellent music behind them. Yet the band maintain a sense of mystery around them primarily by being seemingly unbothered about putting themselves out as individuals and leaving their already indescribable music pretty much unexplained. Their music matches this approach as well, as although at first it would seem the attention should fall on Isaac Wood’s distinctive lyrics and quivering half – spoken vocals, however on a second glance each member of the group offers something highly distinctive that comprises the final sound. The band seem to be proof of the notion that band members don’t have to have an identity to behind their music, as it itself should be interesting enough. Track X is a standout track, sounding far softer than the rest of the album and, having first been worked on in 2018, falls into the albums theme of covering where then band has been and mapping out hints of where it could go.
Rather than falling into the territory of giving away too much too soon the album documents the two-year ground building up to it by the band as well as leaves enough unsaid to make Black Country, New Road a band to watch out for in the future, especially once they are allowed to perform live again.
Their music is reckless, raw, disturbing and chaotic – it’s made for a time of uncertainty and change in which we all navigate in. There is no charming uplifting or hedonistic disco approach in this new wave of British guitar music like it was 15 to 20 years ago – it’s the sound of a new generation that has nothing left to lose than this music and the hope to make things better. Well, somehow.
It’s unpleasant music for unpleasant times and that’s what makes it so incredibly on-point. With the album being recorded last March it can be assumed the band have been working on new material since then and that at the time of its release they are already exploring new ideas. What they are the world eagerly awaits to find out.
For The First Time by Black Country, New Road is out now via Ninja Tune.