“The next Arcade Fire – that’s our goal” said Black Country, New Road in early 2020 – before the band had released their debut – or sophomore effort -, before their lead vocalist quit and even before the pandemic had hit the UK. The comment was a light-hearted, humorous off hand interview response, yet it’s one that reveals far more about the band than it’s members realized at the time.
On their defining sophomore album – one that feels instantly destined to become a cult-classic – the band fully come into their own. Like Arcade Fire did with Funeral, Black Country, New Road take classic rock arrangements and elevate them to new heights, while confronting the joys and hardships of life, love and death.
Very recently departed lead vocalist and guitarist Isaac Wood is Ants From Up There’s centerpiece – molding and upholding the most definitive moments of the band’s legacy-making sophomore effort. His quivering, coarse vocal delivery sells the album’s most defeated moments, it’s most triumphant and also its most humorous. Moments where he fails to deliver on the band’s ridiculously ambitious objectives, while they do exist, are few and far between.
Ants From Up There’s best moments are it’s biggest, where the grandiosity of it’s sound matches the intense emotions of it’s lyrics. “Chaos Space Marine” – the album’s lead single – is a triumphant victory lap. “I’m leaving this body / And I’m never coming home again” sings Wood over an explosion of brass. Here, the group sound less like a critically acclaimed cult-band and more like the biggest band in the world (and who knows, perhaps they should be). The second half of “Good Will Hunting” meanwhile, explodes with a thrilling cacophony of shouted vocals and electric guitar and drum performances – though one wishes these arrangements backdropped something more substantial than bizarre, repeated cries of “she had Billie Eilish style”.
“The Place Where He Inserted The Blade” is Ants From Up There’s emotional centerpiece; an affecting meditation on a toxic relationship’s old wounds being healed by a new, unconditional love. It’s tempting to make Arcade Fire comparisons across the album, but the temptation runs particularly strong here. One line in particular – “It takes a few years, but they break bones / It takes a few months, but our bones heal” – recalls one of Arcade Fire’s most famous verses: “If the children don’t grow up / Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up / We’re just a million little Gods causing rainstorms / Turning every good thing to rust / I guess we’ll just have to adjust”.
The reliable cult-following gained by Black Country, New Road in the wake of last year’s debut has gifted them a newfound space for experimentation and risk-taking – a space they luxuriate in on Ants From Up There. Occasionally the band take their newfound freedoms a tad too far – interrupting otherwise sincere moments with misplaced humor (a reference to the Atkins diet on “Concorde” comes to mind”) or by adding unwieldy, syncopated drums to the otherwise impeccable “Snow Globes”. However, for the most part, the bands boldest decisions pay dividends; their bold sonic ballet delivers unparalleled catharsis, while their attempts at dark humor – when successful – establish them as one of our generations most definitive lyricists (“I fell to my feet and the doctor said, ‘we are unfortunately / Running out of options to treat’ / What a funny way to speak”).
What the band do without Isaac from here on out remains a mystery. Black Country, New Road may still exist – and each band-member displays a level of virtuosity that all but ensures impressive future efforts – but certainly the Black Country, New Road we’ve come to know is over. There’s an inherent tragedy to Ants From Up There’s greatness. In the space of 364 days the band have released two phenomenal albums – each a deserving future classic in their own right. Following the band in that time has been like watching a shooting star move across the sky in real time. You’re glad to have laid witness to its beauty, not in spite of its fleeting nature but precisely because of it.
Best Songs: “Chaos Space Marine”, “Concorde”, “Good Will Hunting”, “The Place Where He Inserted The Blade”