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Black Country, New Road and Hope, by Gwen Engelhart

This article explores Britain’s newest celebrated band, transformation, and beauty despite loss.

Heralding from Cambridgeshire, Black Country, New Road (BC,NR) is at the forefront of the current British art rock, post-punk and post-however-you-wish-to-categorize-them movement. The six-piece band is composed of Tyler Hyde (bass), Luke Mark (guitar), May Kershaw (keyboard), Georgia Ellery (violin), Lewis Evans (saxophone/flute), and Charlie Wayne (drums). Despite their brief existence, the band has a storied career of losing their frontman. First, there was the reorganization of their first group, Nervous Conditions, and most recently, the departure of their frontman, Isaac Wood, in 2022. Yet even with the consistent disassembling and assembling, the band has amassed a cult following (myself included) that is completely enraptured by BC,NR’s post-genre sound, virtuosic performances and irresistible chemistry.

As we approach a year since BC,NR’s most recent release, the acclaimed Live at Bush Hall, I thought it necessary to revisit the band’s discography and delineate change and transformation through the context of their music. 

Released in 2021, their debut album, For the first time, was my first introduction to their music. The album is a tight six tracks that introduce the sound that the band refined in their sophomore album, Ants From Up There. In these six tracks, BC,NR demonstrate their ability to create layered, intricate songs that wind and turn, never remaining stagnant for too long. Many bands utilize the tried-and-true quiet-to-loud song structure, but BC,NR perfects it, with many songs erupting into a wall of chaotic yet harmonious instrumentation. Track four, Sunglasses,” is the epitome of this sentiment.

Throughout the entirety of the debut, the since-departed Isaac Wood’s lyrics are emotionally fraught, focusing primarily on unromantic contemporary ideals, insecurity and disappointment. Wood’s lyrics perfectly capture the unarticulated notion that most of modern life can be quite embarrassing. His characteristic jocular humor is best represented on “Sunglasses.” Wood yawps, “I’m more than adequate / Keep my Daddy’s job out of this!”

The debut skyrocketed to the top five in the UK and was nominated for the esteemed Mercury Music Prize. The performances and lyricism on the debut foreshadowed the even higher praise their next album would receive. 

The project that I revisit most often is the band’s sophomore album. The band released Ants From Up There at an extremely quick turnaround of just 364 days after dropping For the first time. The sophomore album was regarded as one of the best albums of 2022, and their song The Place Where He Inserted the Blade made it to #69 on NPR’s top songs of 2022. For fans, this album remains the most celebrated of the band’s democratic creative process. 

Undoubtedly, the sophomore album marks a milestone in the band as they successfully cemented themselves in a more assured, refined, and calculated sound. The band leans into more rock influences and jazz fusion, led by alluring saxophone and violin. Each chorus is fraught with a desperate melancholy, departing from their notable quick wit on their debut. The final track, Basketball Shoes,” enchants the listener with its choral vocals accompanied by a heartbreakingly magnificent crescendo, making it my favorite track on the album.

Following the release of the Ants From Up There and the quick rise to stardom, frontman Isaac Wood departed from the band to prioritize his mental health. Despite what would respectfully end any band, the remaining six members took a scorched-earth approach and continued onward.

A little over a year later, their third album opens with positivity. The title of the opening track, Up Song,” alludes to new beginnings and recognizes the band’s tumultuous past. In the closing minutes of the track, the remaining members chant, “Look at what we did together, BC, NR friends forever.”

Pivoting from a post-punk sound to avant-garde musical theater, their third project, Live at Bush Hall, creates a sonically inviting and creatively vibrant new sound for BC,NR. Recorded over three evenings in London, Live at Bush Hall proves the band’s malleability and elasticity. The band eclipses the loss of Wood and finds itself in a transitional phase, creating an entirely new catalog of songs out of respect for the former frontman. This latest album is characterized by its gentleness, departing from Wood’s angst and trepidation. Hyde, Kershaw, and Evans split the responsibilities of lead vocals, while Wayne, Ellery and Mark provide backing vocals.

Each instrument on the album found its distinctive voice as the band explored different avenues, detours and harmonious motifs. The live album embodies improvisatory excellence, and the audience eagerly anticipates whatever virtuosity they will undoubtedly conquer next.

Throughout their brief yet already storied career, BC,NR has walked the tightrope between fragile and fearless. The group has demonstrated unshakeable camaraderie, their work reflecting the complex harmony in which they flourish. The six-piece was able to chart their own path rather than simply emulate the style of Wood. Throughout the entirety of Live at Bush Hall, the songs either implicitly or explicitly deal with the exit of not just a musical partner but, more importantly, a close friend. Live at Bush Hall details friendship, loss, love and hope, often all at once. BC,NR’s persistence perpetuates that something beautiful can be created even in times of upheaval and hardship. Those close to us will inevitably depart, but one mustn’t forget that beauty is still possible and that there is much music to be made. No matter what the future holds for Black Country, New Road, I will absolutely be tuning in. 

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