Black Country, Road Road’s debut, For the First Time, is a frenetic culture clash. The influences that made this album sprawl across the globe and throughout history. The band’s line up is equally intriguing and features the standard rock formation: vocals, two electric guitars, bass guitar, bass, drums, and keys. Added to the mix are the more unlikely saxophone and strings (predominantly violin), as necessary as any other instrument compositionally. With such an eclectic and unique sound, it is hard to pigeon-hole Black Country, New Road. But put a gun to my head, and I would say, think Pulp, but way angrier and with the bite of Charles Mingus, the free-jazz danger of Ornette Coleman, the cinematic awe of John Williams, the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the soundscapes of Sunn O))), the abandon of klezmer, the experimentation of Black Midi, the enigmatic charm of David Bowie, and the pandemonium of 2020.
The band have built themselves a respectable following off the back of two singles released last year. This year a third followed, and anticipation for the album has reached a boiling point. Those early singles have since been re-recorded in new arrangements that fit the aesthetic and flow of the album. A raging sludge noise rock element added to fan favorite “Sunglasses” provides additional tone colors to an already so timbrally diverse work. There could be a danger to the more-is-more principle that the band treat every song with; however, these verbose arrangements are crafted with skilled hands. With the addition of strings and woodwinds, the rock band outfit is treated like an avant-garde composer would approach an orchestra as a challenge. With careful temperament, the familiar is made stimulating and unique and unknown that absorbs you immediately.
The track that opens the band’s debut is a deliberate statement. “Instrumental” serves as an auditory manifesto. If you need an introduction Black Country, New Road, here is how they want to be introduced. They’re different, they’re not what you expect, and they are full of a roaring, primeval energy. The opening four-note, Afrobeat-tinged ostinato steams through nearly the entirety of the five-minute opener. This intensity is enhanced by drummer Charlie Wayne’s pounding and heavily syncopated beats that use the drum kit’s full range. Meanwhile, the lesser-used timbral pairing of the alto saxophone and the violin float modal melodies over the top are mournful and haunting but not without that same formidable intensity. As an album opener, “Instrumental” introduces you to the complex curiosity in which the band excel.
The five songs that follow are all longer than your average “rock” track. Black Country, New Road enjoying experimenting with form and structure as much as they revel in subverting harmonic and melodic expectations. Each track’s musical experimentation is mirrored in each of the ferocious versatility of Wood vocal delivery and darkly poetic lyrics. Wood’s self-referential lyricism is filled with mystery and cryptic references. Wood’s delivery ranges from rage to a whimper, and sometimes both are delivered simultaneously in an uncomfortable but familiar marriage.
The second single, “Sunglasses”, remains the highlight of this excellent album. The narrator’s existential crisis detailed in the lyrics has the helpless hope and quality of Albert Camus. Often relistening to this track, it feels more like a piece of performance art or radio play as I watch the character’s destruction and rebirth unfold in my mind’s eye. This track’s, and the whole album’s, severe success is down to this deft combination of expert experimentation in both lyricism and musicality. “Sunglasses” shows Black Country, New Road at their best, but then again, so does every single track on this album.
For the First Time maintains a well-tempered intensity refined in its delivery but honest in its angst. Black Country, New Road show us what a “rock band” or “rock outfit” can achieve on their debut. For those bands labeled as experimental, we now have an expectation and a new benchmark.