Black Country, New Road are named after a trunk road in the West Midlands, a crucible of British heavy metal. But the London-based septet are not thunderous emissaries from the land of Judas Priest and Cloven Hoof. Pulverising force plays a role in their music, drawn from free jazz and noise-rock rather than metal, but it is rationed. Songs fit together like puzzles, with oddly interlocking parts and resistance to completion. It is an interrogative style, at times self-consciously so, as though in a house of mirrors, but done with skill and a willingness to plunge in.
Their name, according to singer-guitarist Isaac Wood, symbolises a “good way out of a bad place”. Those who live near the real Black Country New Road may beg to differ with this interpretation, but it has relevance to the band’s previous life. Black Country, New Road were formed from the ashes of a prior group that fell apart in 2018 after accusations of sexual assault were made against its frontman.
For the First Time is their debut album. It arrives amid a wave of hype designating them as “one of Britain’s most exciting new bands”. A prickly awareness of that status runs through the album. In “Science Fair”, Wood mockingly refers to himself and his bandmates’ as “the world’s second-best Slint tribute act”. The self-deprecation has a passive-aggressive edge, anticipating backlash to the hype so as to neutralise it. (They do indeed sound like Slint, the influential US post-rock act from the 1990s.)
Self-referentiality runs through the album’s six tracks. It opens with “Instrumental”, which is exactly that: an instrumental with fast percussion, needling guitars and the heavy wail of a saxophone. The seven-piece choose to introduce themselves as musicians first and foremost. Wood plays guitar, as does Luke Mark. They are joined by Georgia Ellery on violin, Lewis Evans on sax, Tyler Hyde on bass, May Kershaw on keyboards and Charlie Wayne on drums.
By focusing on musicianship, “Instrumental” makes us wait to hear Wood’s voice. The tactic carries a suspicion about the domineering nature of vocals in a piece of music. When Wood starts singing on second track “Athens, France”, the fear is intriguingly fulfilled. He enunciates his words in a confrontationally mannered style, with quavering tones and a mid-Atlantic accent. It is a performance that calls attention to itself, like a parody of an egotistical singer.
It is a risky gambit. But Black Country, New Road make it work. The music mixes periods of reflective calm into the frantic action, like the minimalist rhythms running through “Track X”. Meanwhile, Wood’s lyrics present a comically aggrandised version of himself, an act of autofiction. It reaches a peak on “Sunglasses”, a 10-minute epic about the desire to feel invincible. His increasingly unhinged vocals are set to a controlled battery of noise, like an act of wish fulfilment.
‘For the First Time’ is released by Ninja Tune