Text: Jacob Parrott
Apart from one other widely released single since their debut track ‘Athens, France’ premiered at the start of 2019, for a while, the only way to get a true sense of Black Country, New Road’s dynamic, genre warping catalogue of music was to either catch one of their vigorously enthralling live performances, or to live in anticipation that a decent enough video recording would surface somewhere online. Therefore, with the release of their debut album, ‘For the First Time’, fans can now freely revel in a collection of six tracks which successfully manage to merge elements of post-punk, post-rock and nu jazz, whist simultaneously boasting less common instrumentation throughout, including sections of jewish klezmer music and even 8-bit synth breakdowns.
With seven members consisting of Lewis Evans (saxophone), May Kershaw (keys), Charlie Wayne (drums), Luke Mark (guitar), Isaac Wood (vocals/guitar), Tyler Hyde (bass) and Georgia Ellery (violin), who are a mixture of classically trained and self taught musicians, it’s easy to understand where the variety of influences potentially stem from that make up the unmistakable sound of BC,NR.
The inability to truly pigeonhole BC,NR is apparent from opener, ‘Instrumental’ which bravely, yet effectively, kicks off the album with a five and half minute instrumental track, featuring a combination of jazz drum rolls, a throbbing bass line and eastern inspired melodies, all overlaying a synthesiser riff which wouldn’t be amiss featured on the soundtrack for a retro RPG. Even without the typical witty, referential lyricism from Wood, BC,NR manages to express an epic narrative tale through music alone by pairing instrumentation that perhaps on paper may not go together, yet in practice, showcases the band’s self professed deep rooted sense of harmony through a monumental display of complimentary musicality.
Previously released, and newly re-recorded tracks, ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ have been altered to reflect the growth the band have felt over the last couple of years since their initial releases, deciding to reduce the overall angst and intensity throughout the tracks, whilst introducing intermittent calmer moments such as the softer guitar riffs which now close out ‘Athens, France’, as well as Wood gaining confidence, as a frontman, to sing in certain sections rather than consistently employing the aggressive spoken word he had previously utilised. The tracks still stand full of distortion laced guitars and sprawling saxophone melodies aplenty, yet the revised approach to the instrumentation and adaptation of some of the more coarse lyricism (“f*** me like you mean it this time, Isaac” in the original ‘Sunglasses’) act as clear exhibitors as to the collective growth and technical maturity that BC,NR have undergone prior to the release of the album.
This overall sense of a “much more considered approach” that Evans speaks of can be felt exponentially in ‘Track X’, which pleasantly stands out with it’s air of serenity and jubilance, replacing the typical essence of dread conveyed through BC,NR’s other tracks. Highlighted through bright guitar riffs and a bouncier violin underlying its entirety, ‘Track X’ manages to veer towards the territory of folk music, even featuring graceful female vocal harmonies during the chorus to double down on the track’s fairytale-esque radiance.
Although the album has its quieter moments, ‘For the First Time’ is still certainly brimming with the apocalyptic soundscapes that BC,NR have become known for. With vigorous, heavy guitar shredding, violent bursts of saxophone and Wood repeatedly barking “It’s Black Country out there”, ‘Science Fair’ is a prime example of this, masterfully overflowing with an ever growing sense of tension that feels as if it is heralding the end times.
The final track, ‘Opus’ magnificently closes the album with what seems like an amalgamation of everything that has come before it. The eastern klezmer influences, of ‘Instrumental’, paired with the chaotic freakouts seen in ‘Sunglasses’ and ‘Science Fair’, alongside the more considered reflective moments displayed in ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Track X’ are all present here. Featuring addictive guitar riffs, vivid violin and saxophone accompaniments, all spurred on by punchy drums and deep, driving bass lines, ‘Opus’ transcends through peaks and valleys, continually shifting tonally from thunderous angst to considered vulnerability, and back again, leading to a monumental conclusion filled with tension.
‘For the First Time’ as a debut album exudes raucous energy, ferocious intensity and compelling experimentation, which simultaneously revels in considered quieter moments of reflection. Each track individually acts as a rich soundscape and an auditory journey that rewards repeat listening to uncover the multi-layered musicality within. With the honing of their previously released tracks, and approach to the album as a whole, BC,NR distinctly convey their ever increasing maturity and confidence as musicians, and firmly cement themselves as serious contenders for a Mercury Prize.