Music Editor Fred Bruce reflects on the departure of frontman Isaac Wood from Black Country, New Road.
Since their inception, Black Country, New Road have defined themselves by a quiet resilience in the face of significant obstacles. The six-piece formed following the breakdown of their previous band, Nervous Conditions, after several individuals spoke out on the sexual assaults committed by frontman Connor Browne.
Left without a vocalist nor a stable identity to play under, the remaining members nonetheless congregated in the spring of 2018 to craft a new sound and a new band. Guided by the Wikipedia random article button, Georgia Ellery, May Kershaw, Lewis Evans, Isaac Wood, Tyler Hyde, and Charlie Wayne rose from the ashes as Black Country, New Road. The band’s emergence into the English underground was appropriately phoenixlike: driven by a passion for improv and experimentation, the stunning range of sonic elements meshed into fiery sound that drew ears immediately. Soon joined by guitarist Luke Mark, the seven musicians synchronised in a way few bands can hold a candle to. Athens, France, a multi-phased post-punk monster released in the first weeks of 2019, demonstrated the sparking chemistry each member still had with one another. The track was soon followed by the similarly twitching Sunglasses, an even more frantic song, propelled by menacing guitar riffs and the wailing cries of Evans’ saxophone.
Just above the instrumental mayhem, ready to be engulfed any moment, was the poetry of stepped-up frontman Isaac Wood. Wood’s cracked, shouted vocals immediately captivated listeners as he explored themes of fear, sexuality, and despair through equal parts abstract metaphor and brutal realism. The frantic delivery conveyed these emotions with ruthless honesty, each sentence feeling dragged out like teeth and drenched in a longing to be heard.
For the first time, the band’s 2021 full-length debut, was the culmination of these discordant elements. A six-track, 40-minute album which rose and fell in panic-soaked waves, it met with deserved critical acclaim and even gave Black Country, New Road their first Mercury Prize nomination.
Attendants of the band’s early live shows (whom I envy immensely) knew, however, that this was far from everything we could expect. The ensemble’s electrifying setlists were frequently filled by unreleased, work-in-progress tracks that hinted towards a softer yet grander sound soon to come. Sonic blueprints like Bread Song showed a mellower side to the band: the sharp angles of Ellery’s violin softened into blissful melancholy, while Kershaw’s piano made a welcomed shift to the forefront. Both, combined with a focus on gentler, twinkling guitar passages, cultivated the haunting sound that would make up much of their sophomore record, Ants From Up There.
Wood’s vocals also saw a drastic change in direction. While almost all the vocals on For the first time were spoken-word in nature – a style glimpsed in sporadic solo works under the moniker “The Guest” – Wood transitioned into a more melodic singing form to match the grander scope of the album. The vocal maturation also opened the door for stunning harmonies with other members of the band. Spectral duets scattered across tracks like Good Will Hunting and The Place Where He Inserted The Blade add a stunning layer to their sound, while maintaining just enough cracks for Wood’s characteristically anxious delivery to seep through.
Enough good things cannot be said of Ants From Up There. Its release, however, was fittingly bittersweet as, just a few days prior, Isaac announced his departure from the band. The crushing news came as a shock to fans, especially given the plans for an international tour following the album’s arrival.
Isaac’s presence will be sorely missed on whatever venture the band next embarks on. His heart-wrenching poetry, stage-presence, and utterly unique delivery are irreplaceable. It is difficult to exaggerate the quality of his art, or the bravery it took to step away from the limelight. Wherever the next step takes him, his impact has already been (and will continue to be) felt immensely.
Black Country, New Road is, nonetheless, a band of resilience. Their metamorphic ability to shift into gorgeous new sounds is already proven, and the promise of other members sharing the vocal stage is incredibly exciting. Their respective solo and side projects – “Jockstrap”, “Good With Parents”, and “Tyler Cryde” to name a few – all demonstrate that each of the six have more than enough creativity and talent to continue making stunning music. Although the sum of its parts would be exceptional enough, I have every confidence Black Country, New Road will somehow continue to exceed that.
Ants From Up There can be found on Bandcamp and across all streaming platforms.
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