When experimental rock seven-piece Black Country, New Road first announced their debut album, its tracklist seemed a bit… off. This most expansive and virtuosic of groups, every bit as jaw-dropping live as everyone has told you, were opting to properly introduce themselves with just six tracks, two of which had been released before. Could such a brief, already-familiar statement really do this project, so rich, so dense and allusive, the justice it deserved?
Well, yeah, it could. ‘For The First Time’ is a triumph, both as a document of who this band have been up to now, and a thrilling hint as to where they may head next. According to the band, they’re already mapping that journey out: “It’s gonna be different though,” says saxophonist Lewis Evans. “It’s taking the weirdness that we have from this first album material, and making that more subtle”.
The opener, simply titled ‘Instrumental’, catches the listener off-guard, as it has previously as their first track at live shows. It’s here that their striking klezmer influence is strongest, the distinctive modality of that tradition colliding with a post-rock build to uneasily danceable effect. ‘Athens, France’ follows; like ‘Sunglasses’ a little later in the album, this has been released before, but both have been reworked and beefed up, the structures a little tighter, the arrangements a little more adventurous. ‘Science Fair’ is tucked neatly between the two, malevolent and hypnotic.
The album’s real revelation is its comparatively hushed penultimate cut, ‘Track X’. Never having made its way into their live sets prior to the pandemic-induced pause to their touring career, it’s by some distance their most tender, vulnerable track yet, owing more to Dirty Projectors or Sufjan Stevens than their more familiar referents (Slint, The Fall). Around its balletic guitar line, keys, violins and sax flutter beautifully, before frontman Isaac Wood’s earnest account of music scene romance opens out onto a totally unexpected plateau of angelic backing vocals and goosebumpy staccato. Unlike so much of their work, ‘Track X’ doesn’t really go anywhere – there’s no free-jazz meltdown or precipitous crescendo – but it doesn’t need to. It’s more or less perfect, just where it is.
‘Opus’ takes us home, its restless instrumentation darting from section to section with exhilarating haste. It does feel like a slightly premature ending, but perhaps that’s the point. Like Wood’s mostly-compelling, occasionally-obnoxious habit of infusing every lyric with a semi-ironic reference or in-joke, ‘For The First Time’ doesn’t quite sound like the product of a fully-developed artistic vision. Rather, it fizzes with possibility and intrigue, its (very few) overreaches only adding to the impression that BC,NR are less interested in providing definitive statements than they are continuing to push forward into the unknown.
Their peak may be years away yet, but this is still some of the most exciting music you’ll hear until then; I’m not sure what more you could ask of a debut.
- Release date: Feb 5
- Record label: Ninja Tune