As soon as Ants From Up There’s intro opens up into the fluttering strings and saxophone of Chaos Space Marine, it really does feel like you’ve never left Black Country, New Road’s mad little world. That could be in part due to their debut only being released last year (almost a year to the day prior to this one, in fact), but also because this band have become so distinct so quickly. Their embrace of jazz, klezmer and a whole host of other experimental flairs has set them far apart from the post-punk they’ve been (often reductively) bucked in with, and on For the first time, having that condensed into just six tracks juggling tight composition with freewheeling, unbridled expanse and creativity was as good a way as any to make a first impression. With that in mind then, Ants From Up Here is almost the ideal sophomore step for a band on this exact career trajectory, unspooling themselves even further for an even longer and more freeform listen, but stabilising the right sonic isotopes to prevent full-blown combustion. As such, this is more of a slow-burn, particularly towards the end with Snow Globes and Basketball Shoes alone encompassing over 20 minutes of this hour-long album, but it does feel earned. The art-school sensibility and sheer breadth of sound mean it’s far more manageable for Black Country, New Road to do something like that; Bread Song will balance its nervy undercurrents with a cinematic creep that never swallows that particular knife-edge, and the horns and math-rock flourishes of Good Will Hunting allow its melancholy to parse out even more cleanly. It’s more refined while still being recognisable, mostly because Black Country, New Road have so many moving parts that it’d be difficult to subsume them all to make that difference. Even just on the first song proper Choas Space Marine, the chirping violins and sax are borderline alien in any modern permutation of alternative music, but alongside an experimental post-punk framework that, honestly, still feels succinct and workable on its own, it captures some real special moments once again.
To be fair, they probably aren’t as bountiful as those that their debut had around every corner, but playing the long game on Ants From Up There certainly has its benefits too. It gets the most of Isaac Wood’s vocals for a start, where the cracks in his sonorous drawl are as imperative in constructing his tableaux of barely-held-back damage as the musical cues. Of course, it’s all caked in an artifice that this sort of indie band positively drinks down, but even for a narrative constructed piecemeal from lyrical snippets, the ideas that formulate remain interesting, but also relatable. The fall of a relationship looms over, particularly on a track like Concorde, with the negative space coloured in by Wood’s typically bizarre aphorisms that hold more humanity and reality than may be expected. Give context to a line like “Don’t eat your toast in my bed”, and it makes sense in the lyrical arc being constructed; affix it with the admiration of “Billie Eilish style” on the next track, and the scenery is one that’s all too natural for this band to be exploring. It’s not as if pretension doesn’t rear its head either, but that’s more a feature than a flaw. Black Country, New Road will go down weird, occasionally self-indulgent rabbit holes, but everything does connect in the end, which is more than can be said for some others in their position. The aforementioned notion of moving parts within this album couldn’t be more accurate for everything going on, but when they’re in sync to a degree that’s this seamless, it’s worth celebrating when it comes together as this does. Its predecessor is still the better display of their full capabilities, but Ants From Up There is the more sophisticated proof that this was indeed not a fluke, and that Black Country, New Road continue to lap their perceived competition by a frankly stupid level. There’s always something new to find or a new alleyway to get lost in, and that’s exciting to see coming from a band like this—at the heart of the indie machine, critical darlings, and for whom the chances of kowtowing to those powers that be remains irrevocably slim to none.
For fans of: black midi, Slint, Squid
‘Ants From Up There’ by Black Country, New Road is released on 4th February on Ninja Tune Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall