It’s Black Country out there
On Black Country, New Road’s blend of Post-Rock, Free Jazz, Klezmer and Art-Pop
by Harry Carlson | 06 December 2020
(Left to right) Georgia, Tyler, Charlie, May, Lewis, Luke & Isaac
Last month saw Black Country, New Road release their third single Science Fair –six more minutes of the band’s sharp instrumentals and vocalist, Isaac Wood’s spoken-word that accompanies each track, filled with sprawling blank-verse and tales of maladjustment. Science Fair seems to encapsulate all the themes explored in the bands previous two singles, Sunglasses and Athens, France, – that of self-image, sexual anxiety, irony, over-thinking and the complicated nature of inter-personal relationships in conjunction with memory. The track perfectly satiates and swells up to bursts of noise and cutting alto saxophone, then retracts ever so slightly to move with the tone of the lyrics’ narrative.
The release of the single also coincided with the announcement of their much-anticipated debut album, due February next year. Few other bands have achieved such stature in such a short period of time, initially solely through their tense live shows in the East London DIY scene, sharing spaces such as The Windmill with the likes of Black Midi and Squid. A path to growth that has become increasingly rare and harkens back to the no-wave bubble of CBGB’s in 1980s. The Quietus and Loud & Quiet have gone on to publish ever-scarce interviews with the band since their first appearances around the scene, the New York Post and The Guardian also publishing commendatory reviews of their much-discussed live shows.
Georgia Ellery of Jockstrap on violin, Charlie Wayne on drums, Lewis Evans on saxophone, Tyler Hyde on bass, May Kershaw on synth/piano and Luke Mark on guitar, provide the driving, anxious instrumentals to accompany Wood’s self-proclaimed “abrasive” vocals. Lewis and Georgia have both previously played with klezmer ensembles, and this is apparent in the band’s live shows with tracks such as Opus which begins in (what my tentative music theory leads me to think is) a Harmonic Minor Mode 5 scale, typical of the genre, then bursting into a Balkanic-sounding noisy crescendo.
Literary influences seem to be central to the band’s tone that they have sculpted for themselves sonically over the last two years; when pressed, Wood named Pynchon and Vonnegut as two of his most immediate influences. This is most clear when you take notice of the intertextuality of Wood’s lyrics and their slightly ironic, paranoid reflections and self-referential, almost meta-fictional content. Tracks make reference to Kendall Jenner, Danish crime dramas, Thank U Next, Bedales School, UE Booms, Scott Walker, Nutribullets and Sertraline. BCNR are often described as experimenting with the line between so-called ‘high and low culture’, but as Wood tries to communicate in an early interview with The Quietus –
“ More successful writers respect it, understand it and choose to subvert it or manipulate it … rather than just doing it for the sake of it. They’re not doing it to make some boring generalising point about culture but to actually say something emotionally resonant ”
The band has transferred these influences into their image as a group – they’re referential towards their own referentiality, they rarely give interviews, and there are very few images of them online – instead only photographs that look as if they’ve been lifted from a deep dive into Midwesterner’s camera roll. But behind the mystique of irony they have built around themselves, there is a tender sincerity in the bands work.
Recently, they performed at Haldern Festival with s t a r g a z e, an experimental orchestral collective based in Berlin and led by conductor André de Ridder. The presence of the bands brass and wind sections added a gorgeous element of countermelody to their track Athens, France and accentuated the lush interludes along with a swooning ambient section that briefly amalgamated the two groups into one. Even without s t a r g a z e accompanying the band, they are equally emotionally potent when they often close-out live shows with their most sentimental and sparse track (currently known as) Snowglobes – nine minutes of climbing violin and saxophone, scuttling percussion and a soft guitar melody to line the track.
The band in a shoot for 'The Quietus' in January 2020
The band describe their writing process as primarily constructed through conversations – each from different angles of musical training and experience, each of a similar age and experimental disposition. Consequently, Black Country, New Road touch upon all the widespread preoccupations and anxieties of my generation. Just as scrolling algorithms have somehow managed to both fortify and eschew any sentiment of ‘taste’ through an endless stream of far-flung content, BCNR have done away with genre and conventional song structure, the inward and the outward, the line between truth and the internal narrative. In doing so they have placed themselves on what could only be an upwards trajectory into 2021.