Credit: Holly Whitaker
Music Obscure Object by Tanner Stechnij

Black Country, New Road | For the first time

March 19, 2021

For the time time is a singular, thrilling (re)birth for Black Country, New Road.

Duh-dum, go the bass and the drums, starting in unison on “Instrumental” — the opening track off Black Country, New Road’s debut album, For the first time — and so, in a sense, also goes their genesis. The drums break off into a nervous solo, provoking an incessant synth line that repeats, noodling around a klezmer scale. These are sounds seldom heard in punk music (and they’ll be revisited before the record’s through). Deeper into the track, Black Country, New Road further differentiates their music from that of other guitar bands, complimenting a moody Tool-ish counter-melody with layered saxophones. By the two-minute mark, “Instrumental” has been nearly fleshed out, amounting to an anxious and cinematic groove. As it intensifies, it brings on new shades, introducing coy surprises and foreboding sensuality. (It’s one of the only hints of sex you’ll get on the album, despite lead single “Sunglasses” containing a fan-favorite cry of “Fuck me like you mean it, Isaac,” replaced on the album with a more obfuscated, “Burn what’s left of all of the cards that you’ve kept.”) 

Prior to this debut, Black Country, New Road generated unparalleled hype from their live shows and the tracks they’ve dropped since 2019 — at least, that’s the impression for stateside listeners, where punk music hardly has the same acclaim it does in the UK. But despite their relative newness as BCNR, six-sevenths of the group are veterans of another post-punk, experimental rock outfit, Nervous Conditions, which dissolved after frontman Connor Browne was accused of sexual assault. That dissolution is a spectre that hangs over For the first time, especially in album closer “Opus,” a grandiose, virtuosic, dance-punk track that astonishes in its ambition, all flying notes and a bizarre amalgamation of sounds. The eight-minute track switches between ensemble runs and downtempo verses, spoken — in usual style — by frontman Isaac Wood. As with most of their music, what comes off as opaque is actually personal, and the rebirth described in this song seemingly alludes to the founding of Black Country, New Road, ending the album on a masterpiece rife with gaudy, angsty self-reference. 

But there’s plenty more to thrill in on the way to that fitting end. “Sunglasses,” the aforementioned 10-minute centerpiece, tells a perspective-shifting story of a couple’s relationship torn apart by its proximity to pharmaceuticals: a Sertraline-prescribed man struggles to accept his relationship with his girlfriend due to her father’s riches, secured by questionable means. Starting with droning guitars, the track grows grittier with each successive verse, breaking out into intense polemics of the contemporaneous. “She sells chemtrails / to the students at Bedales,” Isaac screams, “I try to free myself from the grip / of Shellac nails.” Such emo inspiration is further felt on “Athens, France,” a caustic early single made less distressing and more beautiful for the record, in the process becoming a song about re-releasing a song with some self-censorship: “And write the words I’ll one day wish that I had never said,” Isaac laments. “References, references, references,” he repeats on the cacophonous, uneasy “Science Fair,” after earlier in the track referring to Slint by name, whom they’re oft compared to — by skeptics and admirers alike — and sound most like here. Labelmates and frequent collaborators, Black Midi, are likewise name-checked on “Track X,” a softer, art-pop cut that seems to hint at the direction that the band is going (if teased songs like “Bread Particles” and “Basketball Shoes” are any indication). It’s Reich’s minimalist chamber music that’s the guiding inspiration on this ballad, but it’s not hard to hear whispers of Blackstar-era Bowie or even a slower Los Campesinos! track, too. It all amounts to a mystifying combination — of grit and polished musicianship, accessibility and art school affectation — that seems both sustainable and ever-changing. Between the disparate genres and self-mythologizing, For the first time bubbles with volatility and Black Country, New Road’s paths forward are many. The hope, then, after such a rousing debut, is that this isn’t for the last time.

Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 4.