By Gianni de Falco
For the first time
Black Country, New Road, Ninja Tune, 2021
Read about Black Country, New Road and you will find metacommentaries on influence and genre encircling them like the armada of gnats that nag Pig-Pen throughout Peanuts. This is not without good reason. The London-based seven piece mix and match styles and palettes — fuzzed-out guitars and Klezmer saxophone lines, free jazz freefalls and Bernard Hermann-esque orchestral swoons — so comfortably that you can barely make out the stitching in these Frankenstein forms.
The freedom and ease with which Black Country, New Road combine different styles, rhythms, and sonic palettes is supposedly specific to Gen-Z. Music streaming platforms flatten history’s temporal depth into an infinite space of hyperlinks that allow us to move through content freely, unfettered from the shackles of “context”. Context informs us of the when, where, how, and why of a recording; it expresses that sonic signifiers — such as whole genres, or something as seemingly independent as the reverb used on ‘70s dub tracks — may not be so free floating. The ‘direction of historic and contemporary particulars’, to borrow a phrase from Louis Zukofsky, should be inextricable from a recording’s construction, style, and sound.
In the streaming nexus, however, context is nullified as we jump from song to song, erasing 7500 km or 60 years of distance with the pads of our thumbs. When Spotify allows you to go back-to-back with Cheb Khaled and the Minecraft soundtrack, why should it be strange to have both a bongo and an 8-Bit synth in the same song? It should follow that the artistic productions of those born into this Music Library of Babel will reflect its atemporal, globalised structure.
But this approach to composition is no Gen-Z phenomenon, no substantial break from the preceding generation. In his 2011 book Retromania, critic Simon Reynolds sees a similar game of ahistorical combinations underwriting much of contemporary music in the twenty-first century — from sonic marauders like Vampire Weekend to the wired jump-cuts of Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma. For Reynolds, it is the iPod, with its whim-indulging wheel and shuffle function (streaming was still in the process of becoming the industry standard in 2011) that precipitates ‘historical depth’ dropping out: ‘the original context or meaning of the music becomes irrelevant and harder to recover’. So, whatever substantial differences there are between the ways in which Vampire Weekend and Black Country, New Road crisscross continents and eras, they cannot be generational.
So why all the fuss about Black Country, New Road operating like CERN, smashing different styles together like particles in the Large Hadron Collider, if this has been the status quo in independent music for over a decade now? Focus too much on how BC,NR combine styles and you may fall prey to a cultural mirage and risk abstracting their sonic singularity to shaky claims about generational identity. Try too hard to nail the specifics of their sound to historical genres, and you risk importing too much of the past into the present, depriving musical gestures of their spontaneity and the chance at an original meaning in a new context. Much is made about BC,NR’s mixing Klezmer with post-punk guitar work. However, Gogol Bordello has been accenting punk with Eastern European violins and horns for the entirety of the this century. And yet any comparison along those lines between Gogol Bordello and Black Country, New Road would be lazy and superficial, insofar as it lends no insight into either’s music.
The amount of critical attention paid to their stylistic multiplicity points to a brilliant paradox at the heart of For the first time: many of the places Black Country, New Road visit across the six songs and 40 minutes of their debut are familiar, but they feel so foreign. For all the variables and varying, there is a steeled vision that runs throughout, so, even when you are sure you have heard this before, you have not really — not quite like this.
A partial explanation of that uncanny feeling of difference BC,NR commands might be the way in which these songs march through time, while their components undergo alchemical changes at an alarmingly fast rate. Given that there’s no song on this record less than 4:50 minutes long, you find yourself caught in a whirlwind of sonic transformations from start to finish.
There is no shortage of sounds onto which we can latch: Charlie Wayne’s mutating rhythms (I bet if you charted his drumming you would find that no two consecutive measures are played exactly the same), the punctuated stabs of Lewis Evan’s sax, the rounded thump of Tyler Hyde’s bass. But hold on too long to any single element and you will reawaken to a changed space: melodies having shifted, grown faster and more agitated, or rhythms hitting harder with aggressive precision.
Take ‘Instrumental’, the album’s opener. Bass and drums lead the way with two concise hits. The faintest clasping of a hi-hat can be made out, keeping time in the empty space. Before long the sparse instrumentation is flooded by hands beating on a bongo, while the toms and cymbals of the drum kit shift from leading to accenting the new rhythm. The other members process in one by one: a high-pitched, punchy keyboard line; a guitar riff that’s bouncier than it is melodic; violin, then finally saxophone — the two intertwine, playing the same part at a pace just slow enough to lend a sense of stable ground among all the movement.
But get situated at your own risk. Bongos drop out for a shuffling snare roll. Hyde’s bass launches forward from its stabilising two-note thump to a faster three-note swing. The keys metastasise into a restless twirl. The song changes again, and then again, making for one exhilarating introduction.
Formed in London in 2018 out of the ill-fated group Nervous Conditions, Black Country, New Road recorded the majority of For the first time in the weeks preceding the first lockdown and it was finally released on 5 February. The band’s kinetic live performances and releases have previously been well received, with Quietus-co-founder John Doran going so far as to call them ‘the best [band] in the entire world’ while they only had two singles. Comparisons have been made to American post-rock/post-hardcore bands Slint (whom Wood namedrops on ‘Science Fair’) and Shellac, and post-punk bands the Fall and James Chance & the Contortions. BC,NR do sound like these acts, but only in isolated moments (Evans’ staccato squeals on ‘Sunglasses’ recall James Chance’s playing, for example). While they may not have intended to put some distance between themselves and their comparisons, opening with bone-dry guitars, bongos, and faintly Arabic sounding melodies — all without vocals — confirms their sights are set on diverse terrains.
‘Athens, France’ takes the pacing of ‘Instrumental’ but not its linearity, instead driving through a manifold of tempos and textures, all in a matter of minutes. Angular guitars cut in front of a compact rhythm before contracting into a buildup of sax swells and trembling violins, then dropping out into a half-time haze. Onto this twilit landscape of misty keys and late-night jazz melodies, Isaac Wood delivers an acerbic satire about masculine fragility. Paralysed in front of his industrious, ‘recently enlightened’ lover — her hip venture is ‘a one-size-fits-all, hardcore, cyber-fetish early-noughties zine’, for which ‘she sells matcha shots / to pay for printing costs and a PR team’ — he tries to get it up, but ‘it won’t give up / too soft to touch.’ He finally asks, sparing no irony, ‘but how hard could it really be?’ It is a witty staging of beta-male misogyny, framing ED, a physical manifestation of gendered insecurity, as aggressive passivity and immolating self-pity.
When Wood is at his most critical lyrically, his eye for deep emotion in society’s surfaces rivals that of Mark E. Smith. But where the Fall’s frenetic monologues eyed the hypocrisies of English life under Thatcher, Wood’s contemporary London does not have an equivalent antagonist, probably because we are all complicit. Everyone is a player in late capitalism’s game. The only ‘winners’ are those who can afford to buy the line, and trade in their anxieties about authenticity for a sense of security, knowing that you can never really tell the difference between the real and the ersatz.
In a 2019 interview with the Quietus, Wood spoke to the boundary between high and low culture — how powerful it is when artists ‘understand it and choose to subvert it or manipulate it’ rather than just tossing it out a priori: ‘We all experience things that you could deem high or low in terms of cultural worth but when those things intersect or when the boundary doesn’t feel like it exists, during the point when that boundary is eradicated, then it becomes part of that poignancy and part of the emotional resonance of that moment’ [our italics].
While there may be some inflected irony when Wood sings ‘she’s recently enlightened’ on ‘Athens’, the description is not a judgement. But it is in that lacuna where judgement could be that the ‘boundary’ between high and low culture ‘is eradicated’, or more precisely, no longer applicable. That once-felt distinction between the authentic and not blurs as people continue to find meaning in that which helps them be productive — and in a town like London, productivity is king. The ‘emotional resonance of [this] moment’ is the feeling of loss – the real/fake dialectic has been displaced indefinitely by a whirring culture, one that deifies the image over the object and is set to the pace of the refresh function. That this lover’s productivity, both culturally and economically, can be so commodified and commodifiable (she has ‘a PR team’) despite its nicheness (any ‘zine’, nonetheless one with four modifiers, is necessarily niche) implies that the high/low boundary, once distinguished by art-for-art and art-for-profit, is no longer relevant to even the most rarified subcultures and their political productions. The issue is not that this particular boundary is gone; it is that no other boundary has taken its place, meaning nothing is safe from capitalism’s reach. She’s making art by any means — and that is what matters — while he has ‘learned so little from all [he’s] lost’. She is getting on while he cannot get it up — and it looks as though he is to blame for not playing the game.
The band quickly transitions back into a previous section as Wood’s narrative concludes. Georgia Ellery’s violin provides unnerving tension as the music builds, only to release into a processional of twinkling guitars and somber sax textures. A feeling of loss deepens as the section swells and swoons. You are left with the desire to listen again, to turn back and see what meaning there might be in the wreckage.
For the first time is a dizzying experience that does not relent. ‘Science Fair’ forms the spreading darkness of ‘Athens’ into neo-noir, with suspenseful orchestral arrangements and buzzing synths that feel equal parts Vertigo and Blade Runner. Listening to its decimating outro of radiating fuzztones and deathly violins, you can almost see Carey Grant in North by Northwest while the prop-plane closes in, though this time getting cleaved by the plane’s blades.
Then there is ‘Sunglasses’, a song so brilliant and epochal in its vision and words that it makes a serious claim for ‘Best Song of the Twenty-Tens’ even though it was released in July 2019. The song is a blueprint for the BC,NR of For the first time. It presents the band doing what they do best: obliterating you, mind and body, through a succession of sections that draw you in, stretch you out, cut you up, and then haphazardly reassemble you. It is structured by mood and emotion, and there is a symbiotic relationship between its textures and its lyrics. It is at once subtle and intense, restrained and unhinged. All of the forces that make Black Country, New Road so complicated — not just their stylistic diversity, but their ability to embrace entropy while staying within their own intentional limits — can be found in ‘Sunglasses’.
The song problematises further the questions of authenticity raised in ‘Athens’, as Wood ironically tries to beat back obsolescence — figured by the ‘bite of [the NutriBullet’s] blades / that remind me of a future I am in no way part of’ — through classically intransigent, masculine identities. First, a middle-aged bourgeois Brexiteer who complains ‘of rising skirt hems and lowering IQs’. After, a pretentious indie snob, ‘invincible in [his] sunglasses’, who uses his reflective lenses and a list of cultish cool-boy identifications — the Fonz, Richard Hell, Scott Walker — to hide his fear from the ‘many roadman on this street.’ Whichever the mask, Wood painfully refrains, ‘I am so ignorant now, with all that I’ve learnt.’ The lesson here being that a working knowledge of pop culture and its machinations is not a solution to the existential terrors of identity and class conflict. You can try to reestablish that high/low boundary in an attempt to arrest time, to stabilise society’s fluctuations, and make sense of the world. But you would be wrong to — left rambling over your ‘single malt whiskey at night’ or trembling behind your sunglasses.
After a moment of rest with ‘Track X, a comparatively simpler song that is vulnerable in its perspective and almost pastoral in its instrumentals, the album closes with ‘Opus’: an amphetamine-induced Klezmer jam that slows down and stretches out, showing the sinister underside of its minor key. Wood intones, ‘Everyone is coming up / I guess I’m a little bit late to the party.’ The couplet is not among Wood’s finest, and the extravagant dramatics of this closing section may be the only blemish on the album. After balancing diametric dynamics throughout the entire record, the band leans in a bit too much here, forgoing the patience and subtleties of performance that make each crash, quiver, and vocal flourish so affecting.
But if the band is being honest about its intentions moving forward — looking to turn towards the softer but emotionally resplendent textures of ‘Track X’ — then we might see a kind of poetry in the closing moments of ‘Opus’, when, as if he’s standing alone at the edge of Mount Sinai, Wood yowls: ‘What we built must fall to the rising flames.’ The logical conclusion of their incendiary brand of multidirectional post-punk might be to burn it all down before it gets repetitive and trite. They heighten the most seductive but imitable parts of their sound so intensely that there is almost a campiness in the melodrama.
No artist ever wants to iterate themselves in a half-conscious imitation, but many do and fail to realise it until it is too late. For the first time concludes with its defining sonic qualities — Klezmer lines, buzz-saw fuzz, tempo changes, and mutating forms — being pushed to their maximal limits. From that exhaustion, Black Country, New Road has effectively cleared room for whatever their next step may be. They have kicked open the door just to blow the frame up before our eyes. Only a band capable of making a record like For the first time could have the confidence to end it with a gesture that winks, ‘The best is yet to come’.
GIANNI DE FALCO read for an MSt in English at Corpus Christi. Currently, he's off in the land of club soda unbridled.
Art by Ellena Murray