London septet Black Country, New Road made their ambitions clear with the release of their 2019 single, “Sunglasses,” a nine-minute odyssey of post-punk, post-rock, intensity and abstraction. An act of agitated maximalism, “Sunglasses” presented the group as something of an oblique mystery, building mystique as the band seemingly unloaded everything in their arsenal: meditative atmosphere into terse jabs of guitar, squawks of saxophone juxtaposed with Isaac Wood’s nervy, edge-of-a-breakdown vocals about a feeling of invincibility behind his dark shades, looking like “modern Scott Walker.” It’s not just any kind of band that’ll go for broke in a grand, art-rock statement about something so basic as feeling more comfortable in public when shielded by sunglasses.
Singles like “Sunglasses” aren’t necessarily unprecedented; Bauhaus and Television each debuted with similarly sprawling statements, and one need not squint to hear the abrasive edge of the former or the exploration and improvisation of the latter in Black Country, New Road’s music. What BCNR likewise share with those two bands—in practice if not in sound—is an outstanding debut album that builds on the promise of a self-contained masterpiece of a track by showing everything else they’re capable of. Which is a lot.
The band’s debut For the First Time zooms out from the central point of gravity of their early singles—which also includes “Athens, France,” included here along with “Sunglasses”—to reveal the full extent of everything that exists within the young British group’s orbit. In six tracks there are seemingly just as many approaches, the group just as comfortable in moments of graceful minimalism (“Track X”) as they are on a frantic shape-shifter like the stunning closer “Opus.” These tracks are equally soothing and serrated, gorgeously arranged by a band confident enough to try to keep chaos on a leash at all times.
Four of the six tracks on For the First Time have been released in some form prior to the album’s street date, which in some sense makes it feel a bit like a compilation of singles—technically two-thirds of it is. Black Country, New Road’s definition of “single” tends not to resemble anything like that of what most indie buzz bands’ does; most of these songs stretch well beyond six minutes apiece, take unpredictable detours, and employ slow-burning melodic builds rather than going all-in on hooks. Their aversion to structural familiarity and attraction to well-placed cacophony are two of the reasons they’re often compared to black midi, with whom they’ve shared stages. Black Country, New Road is a very different sort of band, less prone to car-crash dynamics and more fascinated in left-field ideas such as orchestrating a seamless intersection of explosive post-punk bombast and swirling elements of klezmer.
The few “hits” to speak of here retain their mystique and itchy exhilaration in re-recorded form. “Sunglasses” sounds huge and limitless in its promise and execution, while “Athens, France” gains a bit more polish and punch as Wood recites some choice one-liners about a dubious attempt at chasing success: “It’s a one-size-fits-all hardcore cyber fetish early noughties zine/She sells matcha shots to pay for printing costs and a PR team.” And on new single “Science Fair,” the band more subtly employs players like saxophonist Lewis Evans and violinist Georgia Ellery to more tense and cinematic ends. This is a band making noisy, fucked-up rock music a lot of the time, but in moments like these, they likewise prove building stunningly unfolding landscapes to be well within their wheelhouse.
That For the First Time is actually fairly concise at just a shade over 40 minutes is both merciful and something of an illusion. A doublewide version of this kind of compilation of everything-at-once indie rock maximalism might have diluted or drowned out some of the subtler moments like the gorgeous “Track X.” Yet that it’s only two standard LP side lengths allows a track like the driving, pulsing, squealing “Opus” to feel as immense as it is. Everything about Black Country, New Road’s debut is in a state of constant movement, always changing, evolving, breaking down, coming apart and oozing back together. It’s big and bold and willing to do things that the rules of rock ‘n’ roll would warn them not to, and one of those things is trusting their listeners to put in the effort to follow where they’re going. (Worth it.) Tempting as it is to call Black Country, New Road iconoclasts, it’s not what they’re destroying or making obsolete that makes them exciting, it’s what new things they imagine.
Label: Ninja Tune
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.