Listening to Ants from Up There is a bittersweet experience. Black Country, New Road's followup to their fantastic debut album For the first time is a warm, graceful, and emotionally hard-hitting affair. It showcases the bands remarkable attention to detail when constructing arrangements, as well as Isaac Wood's pummelling, vulnerable, and brutally honest lyricism. Those are the two aspects that combine to make BC, NR such a uniquely brilliant band, so it comes as sad news to read that this will be their last record without Wood's presence. Still, this is a hell of a way to depart.
Ants from Up There doesn't contain the same variety in its arrangements that their debut did – there's certainly no “Sunglasses” here – but makes up for it with buildups and crescendos that would make Godspeed You! Black Emperor proud. A strange, dissonant string note is being held throughout the first half of “Bread Song”, before the track lands on its feet with a beautiful ending. “Snow Globes” is another stunning highlight: taking a solitary guitar riff as a basis, with more instruments being added across almost ten minues, before reaching an explosive climax of percussion. It's a wonderful whirlwind of sound.
Indeed, there are moments on Ants from Up There that are simply breathtaking. On the other hand, there are the odd occassions where things feel slightly flat. It's an hour long album that could probably be trimmed by ten minutes or so. If I'm being picky, which I always am, I would have loved more songs that strut with such a confident, upbeat stride like “Good Will Hunting”. It's got hooks galore, too.
I wondered how BC, NR would follow up such a creatively charged debut record, and whilst it's not necessarily as ambitious as some had hoped it may be, Ants from Up There has certainly delivered the goods. It's not your typical sophomore album: these songs don't feel like leftovers, nor do they progress the band's sound to any significant degree. It's a little similar to how Arcade Fire followed up Funeral with Neon Bible (which is incredibly under-rated, by the way).
BC, NR feel like one of the most unpredictable bands in the UK right now, and with a new era already in the works it's impossible to tell what comes next. It's safe to say that we will all miss Wood enormously, and I wish him all the best for the future. Whatever lies next, he and the rest of the crew have created two cult classics. This is another record to treasure.
8 out of 10
There’s a real sense of occasion to Ants from Up There. It’s big, it’s vibrant, it’s busy - every inch a spectacle. Immersing myself in it has been a pleasure. Black Country, New Road are a big band, and they provide plenty to listen to. The cocktail of rock, horned instruments, violins, and sentimentality is in the same neighbourhood as Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Only this is louder, and less affecting.
When the record gets rolling it’s a joy - an early highlight of the year. “Good Will Hunting” rollicks along with the verve befitting a seven-piece band, while “Mark’s Theme” embodies a broader trend of the quieter moments being better than the loud ones. For all the work and care that clearly went into the busier tracks, they do often feel encumbered by their own size rather than made stronger. It’s like watching a mighty steam engine dragging itself up a slight hill.
For me this joins a school of albums we’ve reviewed that even at the ‘low’ points are engrossing listens. There is so much going on, and the ambitions shown are so bold and brilliant, that you can’t help but root for it even when it’s falling a little short. They haven’t yet made good on the promise of their debut, but even after the departure of Isaac Wood you can’t help but think they’ve got a masterpiece in them somewhere. Time will tell.
7 out of 10
For the first time is a fantastic record, and last year I said how excited I was to see where the band would head next. In Ants from Up There, Black Country, New Road take a different approach to songwriting, attempting to create something more cohesive and thoughtful than their debut and redefine who they are and what they’re about. For me, it falls flat.
That’s not to say I don’t like Ants from Up There. It’s often a gorgeous listen with its baroque stylings, indie-inspired textures, and its strolling pace. The trouble is, that isn’t enough for me, not after my expectations for mania and invention were so firmly set by their debut. For the first time was so authentic, novel, assured, and interesting. Ants from Up There has those qualities too, but they’re hardly as consistent as they were on its predecessor.
This band is a big one, packed with musicians with exemplary musical educations and virtuosic instrumental abilities, and I feel that this scope is the root of my various sticking points with Ants from Up There. It often feels like they’re each jostling for space, throwing out interesting inflections when the opportunity’s presented. When it comes to the much-lauded sonic interplay between the bandmates, I fail to believe in it here. Are they harmonising so well because they’re talented musicians rather than because they’re a great collective? If the latter were true, I’d expect them to more successfully highlight each other and magnify their combined qualities. Instead, I’m struck by how often instruments chime in as if they’re grabbing the moment before someone else does, how often ideas seem to clash rather than meld. The self-reflexive, anxious songwriting and vocals feel ill-matched to the warm compositions. Many of the melodies feel forced and clunky, like compromises rather than unlaboured fun. Most upsettingly, BC,NR’s cool factor groans under the strain of this feeling of disunity.
The new approach is decidedly less energetic, too. For the first time’s extended, plodding sections return, but they too often lack the same explosive bursts of nutty-yet-coherent releases that made it all so satisfying. Gone are the aggressively creative compositions, and in their place are comparatively sanitised, pleasant, functional, but disengaging ones. Maybe BC,NR felt they’d been trying too hard, and this change of direction is about relaxing into themselves and what they do best. If that’s the case, it’s an admirable rejection of playing to the crowd, but I don’t agree that it’s an improvement.
The mixing doesn’t help. Plenty of the album’s most interesting instrumental moments are strangely quiet, at times the vocals get lost, at others certain instruments start dominating the space when it doesn’t seem justified or deliberate. In the end, it makes it hard to find things to properly hold on to, remember, or love.
I very much don’t hate it. For all my belly-aching, I think the album’s got a lot going for it, and for the most part I enjoy listening to it. The trouble is that I really don’t love it, no matter how much I try. I don’t get the hype this time around, like I’m listening to a different album to the one that’s getting rave reviews and ‘masterpiece’ shouts across the internet. Nevertheless, I still completely believe that this band is loaded to the gills with potential, and I’ll be straight on the next one whether vocalist and songwriter Isaac Wood returns or not. Fingers crossed it hits the heights I’m hoping for.
7 out of 10