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Black Country, New Road: “Ants From Up There”

March 16, 2022

British art-rock band Black Country, New Road’s emotional masterpiece, is a multifaceted ballad on love and relationships with the instrumental power to back it up. (Courtesy Black Country, New Road)

In Black Country, New Road’s descriptions of love, breakup and relational tension, framed through lead vocalist Issac Wood’s cryptic, metaphor-laden writing and paired with the other six members’ vast, potent instrumental soundscapes, “Ants From Up There” is a musical opus for the band, a heart-wrenching album that runs the range of the emotional spectrum in a way that few albums do.

A recurring metaphor on the album is the Concorde, the supersonic plane of yore, retired after unprofitability and a deadly crash in Paris. No commercial plane ever reached the speeds of the Concorde again. The metaphor of the plane is used to describe an infatuated relationship that falls apart with no hope of recovery (“And you, like Concorde / I came, a gentle hill racer / I was breathless upon every mountain / Just to look for your light”).

Themes of breakup and codependence permeate the album. “The Place He Inserted The Blade,” a Bob Dylan–inspired pop song that is at once delicate and energetic, describes a relationship in which the narrator depends on his partner but senses a lack of interest from them. “Good Will Hunting” describes the recognition of unrequited love (“And if we’re on a burning starship, the escape pod’s filled with your friends, your childhood film photos, there’s no room for me to go”) and the desire for connection (“I’d wait there, float with the wreckage, fashion a longsword, traverse the Milky Way, trying to get home to you”).

Just days before the release of British rock band Black Country, New Road’s sophomore album, “Ants From Up There,” Wood announced a departure from the band, citing a deterioration in mental health. Wood’s struggles set the backdrop of the album, depicting a tortured portrait of heartbreak through complex metaphors and intimate lyricism. Wood’s vulnerable songwriting and impassioned singing make every word pack a punch through all eight tracks he appears on. He could be speaking another language (he may as well be, his lyricism is often vague) and the emotion in every song would still be retained, the descriptions of emotional confusion and alienation evident.

None of this is to say that the instruments fall to the sidelines behind the vocals and lyrics — the album’s instrumentals are passionate and immaculate, powering the album as much as its singing. The music is dynamic and intricate, understated at some times and massive at others, powered by saxophone, violin and piano as well as the traditional guitar and drums. Rarely does one instrument steal the show, except on “Snow Globes,” when mercurial, hyperactive drumming entirely overtakes the song’s second half, drowning out Wood and the rest of the instruments.

The album’s full instrumental finesse is revealed on its gargantuan, three-part outro, “Basketball Shoes.” The song morphs seemingly at will, central motifs and moods changing repeatedly throughout the 12-minute song. By the end, the music is crushing, every instrument blending into one behind Wood’s tortured screams — a fittingly massive, moving closing act for an album as large.

“Ants From Up There” is a masterpiece, a near-perfect set of songs. Every song on the album is saturated with emotion and powerful instrumentals. The album is a powerful testament to relationship angst, an emotional rollercoaster that often feels just as triumphant as it does melancholic. Given Wood’s sudden departure, the album is his swan song. Despite being released just a year after their wildly different debut album, “Ants From Up There” feels like the culmination of a band fully comfortable in its sound and spells out a bright future for the nascent group.

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