This London septet has taken the musical world by storm over the previous couple of years. A group with a similar trajectory to their countrymen, genre-mates, and buddies black midi, Black Country, New Road formed out of the ashes of Nervous Conditions, only to explode into the popular zeitgeist with a couple of groundbreaking experimental rock singles through 2019, 2020, and 2021. For the first time is the collection of these tracks, with an additional two songs, and has already made waves since its release this past Friday. With many already claiming it to be one of the best records of this year, the hype for this debut is arguably more impressive than the music itself.
But speaking of the group’s performances, the forty minutes of jazzy post-punk, zany experimental rock and klezmer-influenced insanity is nothing to write off. The two previously unheard tracks bookend the LP, with “Instrumental” kicking off the fun. Opening with a ridiculously intricate drum groove, the band adds layer upon layer of additional instrumentation, including keys, guitars, bass, saxophone and violin. It serves as a true overture, as the infectiously repetitive melody climbs higher and higher as the dynamics quickly explode into a danceable sax-driven noise rock cut. The gradual build of all these instruments perfectly wraps into the conclusion, where a massive unison repetition of the main melody blares until the final seconds of the track. With no vocals on this piece alone, it feels reminiscent of some The Dear Hunter Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise-era instrumentals in its orchestration and structure, but also provides an excellent taste of some later cuts on For the first time.
From here, the singles begin with “Athens, France,” which draws a ton from Slint‘s opus. An eerie guitar melody and thumping drum part start this overall mellow post-rock cut, and we get our first taste of Isaac Wood (The Guest)’s vocal palate, which comes across as a blend between David Byrne (Talking Heads), Paul Banks (Interpol), and Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu), in addition to most other post-punk vocalists. His impression of Brian McMahan is certainly true in vocal style, but his baritone timbre is a perfect compliment for this slow cut. After a refrain ripped right out of the Spiderland playbook, the track slows to an atmospheric and relatively simple smooth jazz section, as Wood’s baritone croon sings of monotony and the inability to learn from the past. Another build into the refrain then leads to a post-hardcore guitar lead that closes off the track very gently. While this track might wear its influences too broadly on its sleeve for my taste, it alone shows the variability of this group, and the tracks that follow only enforce this.
“Science Fair” and “Sunglasses” are two stunning post-rock tracks that use enough dissonance and avant-garde performances to make black midi blush. The first sees Wood and company making uncomfortable uses of their instruments, with multiple distressed solos from both guitars and saxophone, some of which play in tandem to truly make you squirm. The vocal performance here is also much more expressive, with Wood eventually going “full punk” by the climax of the song, which is also one of the best on the release. “Sunglasses” also sees the band at some of their most intense, with the second half of the track acting as a misanthropic and boisterous bout of groovy post-rock that provides one of the most memorable hooks on the album. Before this fanfare-laden coping anthem however, is an almost gentle post-rock instrumental with an extremely catchy lead guitar line. Joined soon by the most accurate Xiu Xiu impression on the record vocally and an entrancing saxophone part, the song then devolves into the before-mentioned banger after a lengthy noise rock breakdown welcome on any 2010-era Swans album.
The quietest track on the release was also the last single released by the group. “Track X” is a beautiful song driven by the angular guitar melody, as well as the less used instrumentation on the record. The sax, violin, keys and guitar, along with vocals, build repetitively to a gorgeous refrain, accompanied for the first time by twin female vocals that should certainly be more present on the album as a whole. This cut serves as a very nice break from the intensity brought by the last couple of tracks, especially as the closer “Opus” is just as, if not even more, intense than the cuts before it. A somber instrumental duet between guitar and saxophone leads in the song, which then almost immediately breaks into a full-on klezmer jam, similar to the opening track (klezmer is the traditional secular music of the Ashkenazi Jews). Described by a close friend of mine as “literally just an angry bar/bat mitzvah,” the saxophone performance here really enforces this claim. The track ebbs and flows, between soft sections of droning sax and guitar, and massive explosions of instrumentation, eventually leading to the enormous climax introduced by harmonic guitar leads. The ascending and descending woodwind takes charge in the peaks of the cut, as the booming noise rock explodes underneath the jazzy guise. It’s an absolutely breathtaking finale, and firmly cements this record in its greatness.
For the first time is extremely emotive, incredibly intense and outstandingly over the top. This debut is exhilarating from start to finish, and is unable to hold anything back from the sheer chaos it creates. Each instrument is astonishingly powerful, immaculately produced and dead set on being the best it can be. With so much musical versatility, Black Country, New Road is a band that completely compels and dominates in their style. Aside from black midi, this is the only other group experimenting with Slint‘s signature math/post-rock style 30 years later, and what a job they have done. With nothing quite like it, yet a comforting familiarity to guide its hand, this record is amazing, and will easily be one of the best of the year.