Under its original circumstances of release, or at least what we assumed would be the original circumstances of release, Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up There would be considered a breakup album. To an extent it still is, the songs in this collection speak of relationships; some happy, some sad, all melancholic in one way or another. Yet with the sudden departure of frontman Isaac Wood and announcement of the bands plans of a new vocalist and to no longer play the material Wood wrote out of respect to him Ants From Up There instead more resembles a swansong for what has come before it.
The album itself is in many ways a minor epic, clocking in at just over an hour and exploring a far wider range of soundscapes than the bands jagged slint inspired post-punk debut of For The First Time. Ants From Up There feels like an immediate and impressive step forward for the group of seven young virtuosos’. Gone are the creeping baselines and anxious spoken word lyrics detailing the kitchen sink dramas of upper-middle class living with all the terror of a Kafka story. Instead, the bands musical interests have expanded, with synthy keys on Good Will Hunting and a Jazzy 1920’s style piano on the sailor-song single of Chaos Space Marine. In place of the textures of early post-rock and post-punk is a baroque pop styling that lends Ants From Up There a theatricality as each song hurtles towards its epiphany inducing climax. Wood himself comes across as a completely changed vocalist his Ian Curtis drone replaced now with a mournful balladeering singing voice reminiscent of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. That’s not to say the elements that shone so brightly on For The First Time are lost, no rather they are refined to stand out beyond mere accompaniment to Woods tender and pained lyrics. Lewis Evan’s saxophone is equal part triumphant and mournful on the melancholic Mark’s Theme, a memorial to his dead uncle and early supporter of the band. Similarly, the drum work of Charlie Wayne shows a new level of chaotic perfection on the epic snow globes with Wayne’s rapid and vicious drumming drowns out Woods mourning vocals.
Yet despite each musicians’ incredible contributions the true star of Ants From Up there remains Isaac Wood. From their first recorded show at the Windmill back in 2019 Wood has remained at the forefront of discussions surrounding the band. Here Wood fully embraces the role of frontman one last time, each song seemingly constructed around his vocals and retro-futurist lyrics. Instead of For the First Time’s obsession with figures of post-modernity the symbols of science fiction now dominate Woods writing. Wood sings of lightsabres, journeying across spaceships and wearing the armour of a chaos space marine. Yet buried under these symbols lurks the same remarkable tenderness and realism that connected with so many such as the tragic bread song in which Wood describes the crumbling of a relationship around the act of eating toast in bread. Relationships dominate most of Ants From Up There, as I said it could originally be read as a breakup album, the recurring image of the Concorde as a symbol for romantic sunk cost fallacy lingering over each song. Of course, the topic of who wood is breaking up with doesn’t become clear till Ants From Up There reaches its peak with the colossal basketball shoes.
Told in three acts and resembling more a piece of theatre than the poetry of Woods previous
songs Basketball shoes metamorphosises through its three phases, beginning a post break up elegy metamorphosising into an emotional rage before finallyending on a divorce between Wood and listener. With Woods shifting topics so do his fellow musicians, their instruments forming the stage for his final speech, an ultimate declaration of the pain when caught between a demand to do what you now hate as Wood sings “Oh your generous loan to me, your crippling interest.” Its hard not to identify as the subject of his pain.
Too an extent the story of For The First Time mirrors many others before it, a prophet of doom style singer falling apart around the release of an acclaimed album and just before an international tour, the comparisons to the previously mentioned Ian Curtis and the post-mortem release of Closer come easily and falsely. Ants From Up There is no Closer, it isn’t a mournful gothic epic, if anything Ants From Up There is an album infinitely more optimistic than For The First Time. Beyond all my talk of musical evolution or the context of Isaac’s departure Ants From Up There as an album devoid of context is still a masterwork obsessed with love, lovers and the highs and lows of such emotion. Yet when viewed through all the other information provided it becomes a celebration of all that black country, new road have been in their brief period and an introduction into whatwill come next and to Isaac Wood it acts as a final swansong to one of the promising songwriters in recent years.
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