Black Country, New Road love to refer to themselves in the third person. On the South London seven-piece’s debut album For the first time, frontperson Isaac Wood shouts that “It’s Black Country out there!” and twice mentions places built from “Black Country ground.” It’s almost as though Wood has to remind himself that his band actually exists, which is understandable when your noise-rock unit arrives with so much to prove.
When Black Country, New Road debuted in 2019 with the singles “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses,” they rapidly became U.K. press favorites and European festival mainstays. This set up one of two theoretical scenarios for the band’s debut album: They would either make tremendous good on their initial promise or fumble an opportunity that not every band gets. When that band is inextricable from the unpredictable, no-holds-barred South London noise-rock scene centered around esteemed venue The Windmill, the stakes of a proper debut album become even higher.
In 2019, arguable scene leaders black midi (whom Black Country, New Road namedrop on “Track X”) stepped up to this challenge with the formidable Schlagenheim. Squid, another prominent Windmill band, is set to do the same later this year with Bright Green Field. Like both these bands, Black Country, New Road showcases immense disregard for standard musical structures and an affinity for shrieking, discordant noise. Unlike their peers, they rely less frequently on jolting stops and starts, instead relying on gradual jazz and post-rock buildups.
Where their peers might suddenly send out a head-spinning blast of guitar noise, Black Country, New Road thrive in slower tension and release. “Science Fair” moves through skittish percussive shuffles before cresting into noisy synth-and-violin passages that collapse into roaring horns and slammed guitars. The newly re-recorded “Sunglasses” (both the band’s 2019 singles have been revised, with lyrical changes that dampen the originals’ lust) begins as a gentle ballad and decomposes into an orchestral cacophony that swells back into a roaring sea of overdriven guitars and Wood’s raspiest shouts. “Opus” regularly oscillates back and forth between these same sonic extremes, but instead of ending in clamor, it resolves in tranquility.
Amidst this dynamic variance, Black Country, New Road showcases a clear preference for atmospherics over post-punk. On For the first time, their relative tranquility occasionally muddles the lines between their songs. The album lacks instant explosions like, say, the heart-skips-a-beat guitar chugs of black midi’s “Western.” Instead, Black Country, New Road immerses its chaos in softness, and in these gaseous spaces, Wood delivers the most intriguing lyricism to emerge thus far from the Windmill scene (though he’s not short on eyebrow-raisers such as “I wish all my kids would stop dressing up like Richard Hell” and “leave Kanye out of this”).
Whereas Black Country, New Road’s peers barely create characters in their lyrics, Wood vividly details women throughout For the first time. Amidst the tender, aching balladry of “Track X,” Wood’s descriptions (“You’ve got great hips / I’ve been shaking ever since”; “the same room where we fucked as kids”) paint the subject(s) of his passion with equal amounts of mystery and uncomfortable intimacy. On the ripping then jazzy “Athens, France,” he describes a woman filled with contradictions: She flies to Paris and is “the richest girl in every room,” but she also serves matcha shots to pay for PR.
“Science Fair” is perhaps Wood’s most evocative rendering of a woman who exists in some unknown plane perpendicular to reality and fantasy. “She was so impressed / I could make so many things / Catch on fire,” Wood sings during the placid but unsettling first verse. Later, though, this woman, not Wood, is the one closer to trickery. “I saw you undressing / It was at the Cirque Du Soleil / And it was such an intimate performance,” Wood sings. It’s a description so bizarre that it merits the question of whether Wood actually knows this person or any of the characters on For the first time. Maybe, it seems, he’s using Black Country, New Road to fabricate salacious chimeras of women. The answer might lie in the fact that the apex of “Science Fair” is where Wood shouts, “It’s Black Country out there!” And, for him, maybe everywhere.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter, where he has been hailed as “an incredible person with an incredibly bad internet connection.”