There is something immediately refreshing about Black Country, New Road’s debut For the first time. Black Country are probably the most unconventional post-punk group to come out of a new wave of bands who, in pre-covid days, graced the Brixton Windmill. Often compared with the likes of The Fall and contemporaries Shame, they do not fit within the traditional punk mould. This album might even make you doubt that they are punk.
For the first time demonstrates all the skills, witticisms and capabilities of Black Country. They are unashamedly new, and their music is brimming with the curiosity and potential that only a first album can contain. Sprawling with seven members and incorporating keys, violin, and sax but not afraid to use synthesizer, their sound has enough versatility and eclecticism that their album, despite its paltry six-song line up, is still an amazing listen.
The length and complexity of songs such as ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Opus’ allows the band to demonstrate their skill and play with different ideas. The tracks are not merely songs but stories with lyrics that must be properly listened to. From the perambulation of ‘Sunglasses’ – “Of rising skirt hems and lowering IQs/ And things just aren’t built like they use to be” – to the more elegant and poetic ‘Track X’: “I thought about jumping in your face when you saw/ I thought of my father and proving him wrong”. The length of ‘Opus’ and ‘Sunglasses’ make this album particularly exciting as different elements and nuances are discovered with each listen.
It is invigorating to see a band with such pent-up potential
Black Country certainly utilise the power of having such a diverse and large ensemble. Referring to their democratic process for creating music in a recent Guardian interview, saxophonist Lewis Evans evokes the band’s kinship: “We’re so close, we wouldn’t feel uncomfortable telling someone an idea is a bit shit”. Luckily, the tracks on this album feel tried and tested. Their lead, Isaac Wood, is that rare thing – a lead singer who doesn’t transcend the band itself. His half spoken half sung lyrics are as anarchic and fluid as their melodies and instrumentals. The contrast between the two, his sombre tones and the band’s edgy but up-beat sound, only adds to the immense talent that is exhibited in this album.
At the heart of their sound is the obvious klezmer influence. Clear from the expert and thrilling opening, ‘Instrumental’, and emphasising the importance of the sax and violin to their Eastern European and Jewish-folk driven edge, whom we can thank saxophonist Evans for. It is invigorating to see a band with such pent-up potential. Black Country have a potential which oozes from their songs, especially the long ones like ‘Opus’.
‘Athens, France’ is one of the best songs on the album and is once again exemplary of their ability to not rely on any one singular sound. Defined by the guitar and drums in its louder moments it feels more acoustic and traditional. But then, as Wood’s spoken word lyrics combine with the sax, the tension is released in glorious fashion, held together by the constancy of the guitar chords. This song combines fast-paced moments of lyrical intensity – “It’s a one size fits all hardcore cyber fetish early noughties zine/ She sells matcha shots to pay for printing costs and a PR team” – with more subtle and emphatic points: “I check my phone and make the sound, like theme from failure performed for just you”.
Post-punk is now so fluid that even the sax and violin crescendos of Black Country fit within its bounds
It feels easy to pick out easter-egg lyrics out in this album, notably those paying tribute to other artists. To Phoebe Bridgers in ‘Athens, France’ – “why don’t you sing with an English accent” – or to Black Midi in ‘Track X’ (“I told you I loved you in front of Black Midi”). Such subtle wordplay does not feel crass or cheap but instead invokes solidarity between contemporary musicians.
Black Country are a study in the weakness of the genre-label. They certainly have the potential to be a genre-busting band, but they still have a way to go. What For the first time really demonstrates is the skill of a new band. A band who can produce top quality music despite a dearth of gigs and a wild mix of both positive and negative reviews.
Post-punk is now so fluid that even the sax and violin crescendos of Black Country fit within its bounds. But to label Black Country, New Road simply as post-punk would not do justice to this fantastic album. Their bold combination and experimentation with genres and sounds so rarely fused together makes them one of the best new bands out there.
Recommended Listening: ‘Sunglasses’