Genre: Post-Punk, Art Punk
Favorite Tracks: “Science Fair,” “Opus,” “Athens, France”
Ever since I listened to their second single, “Sunglasses,” back in mid-2019, Black Country, New Road immediately became one of the most exciting bands, not only in the British scene, but in the music world at large. Whether it was their ambitious and audacious songwriting, vast instrumental talent, or frontman Isaac Wood’s vulnerable-yet-esoteric performances, there was something so vastly different about what Black Country, New Road were doing compared to many of their contemporaries that caused them to instantly worm into my brain. Even though they only had two songs to their name at the time, I knew this band was going to be a staple of the 2020s.
It then pains me to say that FOR THE FIRST TIME is not the album I hoped for, and even with a re-calibration of my expectations, the magic of those first singles is just not here. I can’t blame the band for wanting to take the approach they did with this album, but if there was any group out there that had all the pieces to make a fucking killer debut, it was Black Country. Instead what we get is an LP that’s somewhere between that hopeful debut and a really well-recorded bootleg. This is still a good album. A really damn good one, at that. But I know that if the group went in with a different mindset, this could have been a great album. When their friends black midi went in the studio to work on their debut, they used the studio to their full advantage, trying out and inserting different pieces that they would never have been able to achieve as a live band. The members of Black Country, New Road seemed to opt for the opposite route, trying to keep the recording not only as close to their live shows as possible, but “basically representative of our first 18 months,” explained Wood in a press release.
Wood expanded on what he sees this album as, saying: “We see this as being a stop in the road. I’ve always been interested in a really honest portrayal of what a band is and what they’ve been working on. I think it’s really nice if people can see an artist like: this was them in the early days, this was their next phase, and that they’re quite clear and honest about genuine progression as people and musicians.” In some ways, I actually admire this mindset, and think more bands could heed this advice rather than getting too big for their britches, but still I hear an extremely ambitious band purposefully kneecapping themselves for no reason.
Individually, most of the songs here are great, and lead single “Science Fair” is possibly the best BCNR song yet, perfectly honing in on the feeling that’s made them so special: creating a sonic environment that feels expansive yet claustrophobic. Maybe that’s a byproduct of the group cutting their teeth in small venues like the Windmill in Brixton, but whatever the case, I feel frozen in fear when listening to it, like I’m stuck in a bad dream that I am in no way part of, left to observe Wood’s brazen performance as he gets increasingly unhinged. By the time the song’s cacophonous coda kicks in, I feel like I’ve drained an entire swimming pool’s worth of sweat out of my body, not even aware I’ve done so until I’m snapped out of this band’s alluring spell.
While “Instrumental” and “Opus” are also able to tap into this feeling, most of the middle of the record just can’t, as “Athens, France” and especially “Sunglasses” don’t feel right at all—even when re-recorded to feel more in line with the rest of the record, they don’t fit. These are songs that work as standalones, but feel roughly shoved in to go along with their “first 18 months” concept. While I’m a firm believer in the power certain limitations can have on creativity, this just wasn’t the right limitation for a band like BCNR to have. FOR THE FIRST TIME serves as a fascinating document of a band finding their voice, but it’s just that: a document. One day Black Country, New Road is going to put out a classic, it just sadly isn’t going to be now.