Rock music is dead. At least, that’s what the older gentleman wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt was telling me. ‘Bands don’t know what rock and roll is anymore’, according to my mate who listens to nothing but The Stone Roses and Definitely Maybe. I suppose it’s true that in 2021 we’re still waiting for that decade-defining band: the one that spawns numerous clones and ultimately leads to severe saturation and general fatigue. Nevertheless, the UK finds itself in an exciting moment. Black Country, New Road, along with others such as Squid and Black MIDI, are leading the way towards a new era of British guitar music. These artists sound unique, even a little unusual. They aren’t blinded by nostalgia and instead look forward and attempt to break boundaries. You can’t help but feel something is happening here.
I don’t think For the first time is the landmark moment for this new era, although only time will tell. For now, it stands as an accomplished debut that lays a substantial foundation to build on. The music is remarkably mature, particularly given the age of Black Country, New Road, but it’s also beautifully chaotic. Much of the record is spent patiently building toward climaxes that mostly warrant the wait. I don’t think the band have quite mastered the art of progression and dynamics in the same way as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for example, but there’s plenty of time for improvement. The music here has a habit of wandering, most notably during the early moments of “Science Fair”. Fortunately, the final minute of that song is so bloody brilliant that you quickly forget about the meandering introduction.
The album is bookended by two frantic (yet very danceable) tracks that stick long in the memory. “Instrumental” and “Opus” are instantly more accessible than other songs simply because they get straight to the point. Any frustration listeners experience elsewhere will likely be emphasised by Isaac Woods’ vocals: not because they’re bad - far from it - but because the narrative nature of the delivery doesn’t exactly accelerate the buildup. “Track X” is a welcome relief, with its soothing backing vocals contrasting against Woods’ deadpan diction. Generally, I think the vocals work well, and with refinement could be even more effective in the future.
Rock music is dead. The rock music of yesterday, anyway. We’ll always enjoy our old favourites, and we still have the likes of Radiohead pushing boundaries with almost every release. For the first time is a debut record that shows what rock music can sound like in the 2020s. Obviously, violins and saxophones have occupied the same space as fuzzy guitars before now, but the ways in which the band use those instruments together can be exhilarating. The band showcase an inspiring sense of adventure. Better still, they hint at even greater heights. I suggest we strap ourselves in, because there’s a lot more of this coming from an angsty post-Brexit Britain. Let’s enjoy the ride.
8 out of 10
The most striking thing about this chaotic, traumatised, and unbelievably groovy album is how every track feels like such a committed performance. In sticking Black Country, New Road on you’re getting a band that demands attention not just in intricacy, but in raw emotiveness. It sounds fucking great.
For the first time’s horn sections and digital melodies have a romantic traditionalism about them, drawing on the tonalities and rhythms of klezmer music. That builds a certain energy and authenticity from the off. “Instrumental” serves as a comprehensive introduction to the album’s instrumentation, culminating in blaring brass that wouldn’t sound out of place in the theme for a Bond movie. Following on from the first track, no time is wasted before we’re then introduced to the rest of their qualities: the juddered staccato of Isaac Wood’s vocals, the band’s abstract, introspective lyricism, and their grungy, Xiu Xiu-Mogwai-Swans-Joy Division-ish approach to alt rock jams.
The result is a blend of teenage angst and a primordial, animalistic sense of something lurking beneath a thin surface, a shape clawing at the other side. The beast cuts through as the band unleashes their regular explosions of energy, the membrane is built back up in the aftermath, then there’s the gradual build to the next assault. For the first time’s variation across tracks is admirable, complex without redundancy, and extremely effective at upholding a sense of ebbing and flowing — of the demon taking over, and the unsettled peacefulness when it flees back to its lair.
I’m getting very figurative about all this, I’ll admit, but what I’m trying to say is that, for all its melodrama, For the first time is never crippled by its sincerity. This album’s the most fun I’ve had with an English rock album in ages, and I’m counting the great time I had with Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink in that span. The instrumentation and tones are moreish and consistently inventive, it’s deftly mastered and well-paced, and it’s very, very promising. If the leap in cohesion and individuality displayed between the great “Sunglasses” of 2019 and the brilliant “Sunglasses” of 2021 is anything to go by, Black Country, New Road are not only hugely adept but still in development. Excellent as they already are, they seem unsatisfied with themselves. How exciting is that?
9 out of 10
The lead singles for For the first time had me fooled. Heading into this debut, I was expecting something akin to San Fermin with a touch more bite. Moody guitar with horns to add some spice. I was in for a surprise.
While San Fermin’s love of horns carries over, Black Country, New Road are doing something quite different here. Immediately evident from the urgent, pounding motif that swells and leers out of the opener, the band aren’t five minutes in before overflowing into a chaotic, heady climax of brass arguments and guitar snaps.
They excel at these cacophonous explosions, and the backends of “Science Fair" and “Sunglasses” make for some of the best moments on the album. Joining them is the entirety of “Opus”, which channels both Fanfare Ciocarlia’s manic horn disco at one end and an earthy, sludgy bass chug one might sooner expect from the likes of TOOL on the other.
Top that off with a vocal performance from Isaac Wood that has moments of striking similarity with Ian Curtis, and I’ve referred to four starkly different acts to describe For the first time. That should be a sign that a lot is going on in this 40-minute tracklist. Tracks pull and push their tempos, vast instrumentation filters in and falls away, and Wood proves he can remain engaging while talking about a NutriBullet.
But all these moments of high-octane action run alongside minutes of buildup, and while “Sunglasses” does so expertly, other tracks falter in this regard. “Science Fair” is the easiest to point towards as, while I praised its finale, the prior four minutes consist of a simmering build flanked by interjections of flapping horns and spikey guitar stabs. It gives a loose, borderline messy aesthetic to the track that I didn’t get on with, intentional or otherwise.
This is a banquet of an album that many listeners will no doubt enjoy feasting on and, messiness aside, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed much of what I’ve heard from For the first time. With a debut released on Ninja Tune, Black Country, New Road are already making waves at an early stage of their career. Whatever they do next, it’ll come with a big sound and a big buzz. Well worth a listen, and a group to keep an eye on going forward.
8 out of 10