Oceans of hype have gathered behind the London group based on the strength of their mesmerizing live shows, early versions of “Athens, France” and the particularly salacious “Sunglasses” that rabid forum-dwellers will swear are far superior to the ones you’ll hear on the album (they aren’t).
Most importantly, a steady string of releases from post-rock-adjacent peers, Black Midi and Squid, have set the bar unfairly high for Black County, New Road’s first recorded effort. Frontman Isaac Wood and company are indeed late to the party. Luckily, they arrive with just the right mix of brash youthful energy and shameless courage to talk their way inside.
Your love or hate for the band will largely rest on your attitude towards Wood’s lyrics and vocal delivery. Make no mistake: you won’t find a single slacker among the seven-piece outfit, all of whom work overtime in setting his bug-eyed fantasies ablaze with instrumental color. But isolated from the sonic crunch of a small club, the band mixes Wood’s voice front and center, pivoting behind his every word in lockstep. Points for vulnerability aside, this symbiotic dance works in his favor, with the band often swooping in at just the right moments to rescue him from potential embarrassment.
This instinctual awareness shines on “Track X,” where Black County, New Road nixes percussion in favor of a polyrhythmic cascade of soft horns and pulsating strings that jostle for attention with a delicately tumbling guitar riff. The tender accompaniment dulls the shock of lyrics that devolve into egocentric cringe (“I tried my best to stay afloat / After I sacrificed the goat in your name / In the same room we fucked in as kids”), yet conjures up enough grace to make a refrain as timid as “And I guess, in some way,” float like the revelation its naive narrator intends it to be. “Sunglasses” sees Wood in a far more domineering position, hurling insecure barbs at a lover and unable to restrain himself from the lure of a punchline, demanding that she “Leave Kanye out of this.” Buoyed up as they are by a seasick string section and tense guitar fuzz, the observations of this “modern Scott Walker” vary in mileage depending on your ability to keep pace or patience with the comedic quirks of Woods’ rotating cast.
Personally, I’ll take a Slint joke wherever I can get it, and that goes double when I encounter it clawing its way out of a mental breakdown as sprawling and as unnerving as the one on “Science Fair.” Woods spirals into chilling Lovecraftian madness. “It’s Black Country out there!” he screeches — the band suffocating him in a glittering siren wail before rallying for a rousing crescendo in the record’s most uniquely satisfying moment. This track is an indulgent hard rock stomp that casts aside the sweltering pretension for a private headbanging session. Though the group hints quite convincingly at their aptitude for hysterics on the rattling “Instrumental” and summons up a brief maelstrom of horns to close out the funereal “Opus.” The fiendish energy of “Science Fair” is as good as For the first time gets in driving home the gut-level appeal of Black Country, New Road at this early stage in their career.
Forecasted to take the title by an undeniable knockout, the band instead landed a tremendous first round haymaker, primed to knock the wind out of fans and newcomers alike. For the first time might not be the coup de grâce you expected, but you’ll sure as hell be feeling it the next day.
Essential Tracks: “Track X,” “Instrumental” and “Science Fair”
Prerequisites: Squid’s Town Centre and Black Midi’s Schlagenheim