Black Country, New Road – Ants from Up There: Review

Last year Black Country, New Road delivered auspiciously vibrant production in their debut, For the First Time. I was captivated almost immediately, from their rustic jazz undertones to experimental instrumental layering within the post-punk genre that it left me slightly optimistic. Unfortunately, that optimism has stepped back slowly upon lead vocalist Isaac Wood’s departure – as for now, Ants from Up There is a remarkable pivot for the band whose last album had minimal variation. It had these different ideas relative to the external nature of song composition instead of adding more depth. On Ants from Up There, the band isn’t as altruistic musically; they immerse themselves into balancing the external with the internal. Because of this, Ants from Up There shines, spotlighting itself as one of the best rock albums over the last few years.

For their debut, Black Country, New Road re-recorded past singles and began to create the mold for its sound. It had chaos; it had ingenuity; most importantly, it had too many ideas, some of which were superfluous. At times, their talent and songwriting tinted my headphones, which covered some of the poor freeform vitamins in the mix. Unlike their debut, Ants from Up There brings bright spots for the darkness. They take out the vitamins and make sure they don’t burn the concoction, delivering a fine fixture of delicious musical plates for indulging. I’ll tell you; it may have left me slightly over-bloated without regret. There are varying elements of different genres not heard in their debut, and mastering new territory to excel, like with Isaac Wood’s vocals, it grasps your ears with a chamber-pop-echo reinforcing the melodic bind between the vocal layers and production.

In an interview with Apple Music, bassist Tyler Hyde said: “We wanted to explore the themes we’d created on that song. It’s essentially three songs within one, all of which relatively cover the emotions and moods that are on the album. It’s hopeful and light, but still looks at some of the darker sides that the first album showed.” She is speaking about the track “Basketball Shoes” – it combines three different art-rock-driven songs into a 12-minute three-part arc that flows tangentially from start to finish. Within the three-song variation, there are nuances to the sonic motifs throughout the album, while mirroring elements of the intro, there is tame chaos. It’s paradoxical, but the album emboldens a beautiful parallel, where the instruments play at an elevated level. We get these contextualized and bright instrumentations while embodying complex, poetic songwriting, a good amount of which are about different things within a failing relationship.

Ants from Up There bridges Isaac Wood’s songs about a relationship with emotional exuberance. On “Chaos Space Marine,” the band plays with joy in every note as Wood sings about taking the next spiritual step into maturity. “Mark’s Theme” overly contrasts “Chaos Space Marine” in tone. Unlike seeing the light at the end of a proverbial journey, this metaphorical light ends for Saxophonist Lewis Davis’s uncle, who passed away from COVID. It’s a dreamy saxophone-centric production that embodies Davis’s emotions. It’s heartwrenching and adds a sense of unison amongst the band. They transform elegantly on “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade;” it takes influence from 70s Bob Dylan in its rustic production and lyrical elements from a song off Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, specifically “I Know There Is An Answer.”

There is a remarkable evolution unfolding on Black Country, New Road’s new album – one where the world is at your fingertips. You can take yourself to a place where the canvas is covered in vibrant colors in different hues, allowing them to transfix you as you divulge themes. Musically speaking, there is an ethereal array of jubilant instrumentations. Charlie Wayne’s percussion brings elements of hypnotic bliss, while Tyler Hyde’s groovy bass lines and Georgia Ellery’s violin playing deliver nuances of the dark chaos at times seen in post-rock. It’s expressive throughout, especially in the track “Good Will Hunting.” It’s a steady progression, leading to the 40-second mark where it blossoms into one of the best songs on Ants from Up There

However, within the confines of Black Country, New Road’s album, you start to infuse yourself within the confines of their sound, “Snow Globes” muddles in the background. The production drowns out Isaac Wood’s vocals, leaving you thrusted into an intense shake of a snow globe. It doesn’t hinder it and works on its own. Unfortunately, it isn’t until the second half that it recaptures your attention for the closer, “Basketball Shoes.”

Black Country, New Road’s shift from the chaotic, jazzy, punk rock hybrids of their debut adds a new light on their talent, especially as they maneuver while making a concert audience cheer louder than before. As they take these elements of art-rock and chamber-pop vocals and blend them into one, it leaves me feeling excited for new music, despite slight sadness from their canceled tour.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Pale Waves – Who Am I?: Review

In 2018 UK Gothic/Emo – Synth Rock band Pale Waves made noise on the rock charts with their eclectic instrumentations and overtly catchy – albeit depressive lyrics that could make those in the dumps elevate their serotonin through dancing and singing. Their debut My Mind Makes Noises had an arrangement of lush – noisy rock music and with lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie’s unique songwriting and melodies elevated their attention in the music world. But their follow up Who Am I? takes a step back from relying on synth melodies and delivers tracks that are tamer in instrumentation, but still carries that relativity to keep fans coming back for more.

Who Am I? has recurring undertones of 90s garage/grunge rock, but when it intertwines with the goth-like lyricism makes it feel like a time capsule of something out of the very late 90s. In ways it is very similar to the kind of emo-rock artists like Avril Lavigne was releasing at the time, the only difference is that Pale Waves usually have more to say in their words and instruments.  

Tracks like “Fall to Pieces,” shows a perfect meshing of the alternating 90s/00s punk infusions with a little modernization from slight echo modulation. They keep up the aesthetic with a very 90s music video. Unlike My Mind Makes Noises, there is no hyper stylization in the aesthetic and though it causes some stepbacks it doesn’t always hinder Who Am I? 

Pale Waves continues a streak of eloquent melodies and hypnotic instrumentations that lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie and the rest of the band delivers. Even if it doesn’t have the audacious dreamy mysticism that made the first album such a synth-powerhouse, it tries to deliver through grittier and unflinching instrumentations. But that doesn’t mean the album is devoid of these moments, as tracks “Easy,” and “She’s My Religion,” are reminiscent of the kind of sound from their debut. 

Unfortunately Who Am I? let’s most of its tracks pass by swiftly where at times you feel like this one huge orchestration, though the first half is full of tracks about relationships and heartbreak. But as the album starts to dive into the second half of tracks, the themes and writing begins to hollow out.  

This is not the case for the standout “You Don’t Own Me,” a monstrous thrasher of a hard rock anthem for a band that rarely delivers notes on that front. Heather Baron-Gracie’s songwriting is at its strongest here with the dynamic as it tackles themes of mental health and the perception behind the notion – “You have a pretty face, you should smile.” 

A lot of the themes Pale Waves work with deal with mental health – as told by a goth, it helps get over the simplistic choruses on the album. Though the instrumentation shift during the choruses allows for Heather’s melodies to take center stage, you tend to forget the simplicity. It was My Mind Makes Noises biggest crutch, as it keeps you remembering the catchiness.

However, the writing of her verses is always strong and Who Am I? for the most is broken down to let Heather flex. But nobody is purely perfect in one area, as evident with the track “Tomorrow” which falters into the kind of hokey “universal empowerment track for the fans” category. . It’s cringe empowerment-like verbiage that doesn’t feel like a lot of thought was put into the execution. It isn’t like the elegant and simple “She’s My Religion,” the excellent anthem about same sex love. But for some they will find enjoyment, and it’s a cool of the band to use the mainframe of it as a way to speak to them through each song. It is slightly disheartening since the instrumentation feels wasted, with it’s pure rock core deriving from Ciara Doran’s drumming and Huge Silvani’s electric riffs. 

For the things that Who Am I? lacks there is a good amount of tracks to keep you zooming anytime you sit through it. Pale Waves take a step back in their sonic progression as the dreamy synth rock seems like the direction where they can challenge themselves past certain limitations as artists. 

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.