Black Country, New Road’s tale of triumph unfolds in the shadow of tragedy

Super-charged septet follow up on their ‘utterly mesmerising’ debut by going brighter and bolder

Black Country, New Road:  Ants from Up There is one of those great second records which feels like a brighter, bolder revisiting of the themes explored by its predecessor

Black Country, New Road: Ants from Up There is one of those great second records which feels like a brighter, bolder revisiting of the themes explored by its predecessor

 

His name was Mark and he was Black Country, New Road’s biggest fan. He would stand down the front at their shows, dancing “like a lunatic” to the Cambridge ensemble’s hurtling blend of indie blues, free jazz and Mogwai-style post-rock.

“He’d been to loads and loads of our gigs. He’d always be at the front, going mental,” explains Black Country, New Road drummer Charlie Wayne. “Mark was the uncle of Lewis [Evans], our saxophone player. We all knew him well. Lewis is quite tall and Mark was tiny and kind of stocky and had a thick Scottish accent.”

Mark died from Covid last February. The band received the sad news 24 hours before the release of their debut album, For the First Time. One year on, with a second LP, Ants from Up There, about to see daylight, their feelings about that period remain a jumble. For the First Time was an instantly acclaimed top five hit and Mercury Music Prize nominee. And yet this tale of triumph unfolded in the shadow of a tragedy.

“Mark didn’t have any underlying health conditions. [But] he went into the ICU round about this time last year when we were starting to write the album,” says Wayne. “He passed away on the 4th of February, the day before it came out.”

Devastated by his death, the group – a sprawling seven-piece who came together at school in Cambridge – resolved to honour his memory. Hence Mark’s Theme, an emotional centrepiece of Ants from Up There.

“Lewis had picked up a new saxophone on the 4th [of February]. And he wrote this theme for Mark. It felt like it needed to be on the album. He wasn’t there to see the first album be released. He was a big, big supporter. And a massive part of all our experiences of beginning to play music. And he is dearly missed. It felt right to have it on the album, even though he would have hated the song – because it wasn’t loud enough.”

Wayne and Black Country, New Road bassist Tyler Hyde (daughter of Underworld’s Karl Hyde) are speaking over Zoom from a flat in London. Their reflections on the death from Covid of a dear friend come on the day Boris Johnson will make a stuttering apology for the boozy Downing Street party he claims to have attended under the misapprehension it was a work meeting.

“It’s really disgusting,” says Wayne of Johnson and the wine o’clock culture he has presided over as prime minister. “We didn’t put Mark’s Theme on the album to make a point or anything. It’s for Mark. But we’re all able to say it’s so, so gross. It’s disgusting. The whole government is so far beyond the realm of any kind of forgiveness at this point.”

‘It’s weird when people compare us to Fontaine DC. We’re not the same at all. They’re much more famous than us. They’re on a different planet’
‘It’s weird when people compare us to Fontaine DC. We’re not the same at all. They’re much more famous than us. They’re on a different planet’

Black Country, New Road have had an extraordinary journey. They emerged in 2018 from the wreckage of another outfit, Nervous Conditions. That project, which similarly plugged into free jazz and alt rock, had disbanded when its lead singer was accused of sexual assault.

That could have been the end. Instead, it was the beginning. With guitarist Isaac Wood taking over on vocals and Luke Mark joining on guitar, they were reborn Black Country, New Road. Named after a minor route in the West Midlands, the super-charged septet drew on influences as contradictory as contemporary composer Steve Reich and post-punk icons The Fall.

A debut single, Athens, France was released in 2019 on Speed Wunderground, the label run by Fontaines DC producer Dan Carey. And then, last February, along came For the First Time. Heralded by the NME as “utterly mesmerising” it reached four in the UK charts – an incredible achievement for a work that owed more to Ornette Coleman than Oasis.

And then the Covid lockdown went on and on and everything changed. “The first album was basically made for a live setting and having an audience reaction,” says Hyde. “Whereas the second one, we didn’t know when we were going to play live again. Everything had to be totally insular. We had to learn how to interrogate ourselves and our decision making better. Interrogate every part, every song. We became better songwriters.”

Seven-piece indie jazz troupe’s are not renowned for their sense of humour. Black Country, New Road have a cheeky side, though. This becomes clear when they are asked about aforementioned punk-poets Fontaines DC, to whom they are often compared.

“They did come up around the same time relatively, I suppose,” says Wayne. “They have played similar venues to us recently. But they’re f**king huge. Massive, massive band. To the point where we’re able to parody them and not feel like we’re offending.”

In December 2019, playing a charity gig in London, Black Country, New Road  hooked up with fellow Mercury-nominees Black Midi for a playful cover Fontaines DC’s Boys in the Better Land. Because it was Christmas, they applied a seasonal twist. “The boys in the Christmas hats,” they yelped on the chorus. “Always talking ‘bout the boys in the Christmas hats.”

Hyde adds: “It’s weird when people compare us. We’re not the same at all. They’re much more famous than us. They’re on a different planet.”

Arriving less than 12 months after For the First Time, Ants from Up There is one of those great second records which feels like a brighter, bolder revisiting of the themes explored by its predecessor. It is, in places, simply heartbreaking. Mark’s Theme, for instance, closes with a recording of the man after whom it is named, waxing lyrical at the end of a night out.

There are also moments when the blend of jazz, experimental rock and heartfelt indie reaches achieves an irresistible propulsiveness. “And though England is mine/ I must leave it all behind,” sings Wood on Chaos Space Marine. He sounds like a dead ringer for the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, as a brass section swells and pianos yammer anxiously. It’s like hearing a mid-sized orchestra have a meltdown – or at least it would be if the track didn’t radiate a knock-out optimism as Wood reaches the heartfelt line “Oh, I’m a chaos space marine/So what, I love you.”

“The overwhelming feeling I get from the album is a sense of hope,” says Hyde. “It was the one beacon of light at the time. I’m not complaining. We were very safe and comfortable considering how bad the world was doing. But music was the happiest thing in our lives.”

Ants from Up There is released on February 4th

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