Black Country, New Road have turned ineptitude into an art. On their February debut, For the First Time, the London band throws assorted snippets of guitar noise, klezmer, jazz, and vaudeville into a rock blender. The synthesis doesn’t cohere at all — and it’s not meant to: the incongruity is an end in itself.
Black Country, New Road, along with Do Nothing and Black Midi, with whom they regularly perform, belong to a new class of English art bands inclined toward progressive rock (or “post-rock”) and spoken-word declamation. Blasting forth over fuzzy distorted guitars, they conjure a wiry energy, with stray bits of keyboard or saxophone or violin sticking out of the mess, lending the music an ominous, carnivalesque air. Their shrill, frantic density, especially when colored by Lewis Evans’s saxophone and Georgia Ellery’s violin, recalls early Roxy Music (“If There Is Something” off Roxy’s 1972 debut, is ground zero for many of these bands), but it lacks the corresponding overtones of sex, glamour, and high society. Only irony remains.
Although the winding twists of this music sound meticulously practiced, the band is not showing off, nor aiming for epic grandiosity, perhaps thanks to punk’s intervening influence; instead their complex harmonies and tempo shifts achieve a wry, calculated clunkiness, as they galumph through their paces. The mood is a mix of doom, mischief, and a nihilistic joy in contrivance, as if their songs are impossible puzzles and they’re laughing at listeners trying to solve them. Unlike previous generations of prog rockers, they’re not trying to elevate rock, or turn it into jazz or classical. They’re stranded at the end of history, and don’t know where to turn.
Consisting of six circuitous but often fiery extended compositions, For the First Time is a compendium of musical jokes. Unlike Black Midi, who play their dry postpunk distortions straight before singer Geordie Greep’s childlike squawk collapses everything into a cartoon, Black Country, New Road build their humor directly into the music. The album abounds with jump scares, slapstick gags, partially untangled sonic knots.
The most amusing song is the instrumental opener, “Instrumental,” whose garish keyboard hook, ironically solemn horns, and wild, clackity drumming produce the jolliest and creepiest sort of circus music; gradually building in frantic intensity before cutting off abruptly, it’s like the soundtrack to a nightmare about killer clowns. The second funniest is the closing “Opus,” which juxtaposes a jumpy, straightforward rock song and a slower, mournful funeral procession, beset by honking horns and wailing strings that lend an appropriately dolorous dissonance. The song toggles back and forth between moods as if trying to find a balance, but neither direction quite settles, and it finally ends in a series of anguished howls by singer Isaac Wood before reaching an orchestral note of closure.
On “Track X” they even approximate a love song: over a plucked acoustic riff that could come from a lost ’90s lo-fi ballad, Wood mumbles his way through a tongue-tied confession in a dry drone, dotted with moments of absurdity (“I sacrificed the goat in your name in the same room where we fucked as kids”), which only make the song more adorable. During the outro, as Wood’s voice is overtaken by background sighs, Ellery’s staccato violin and Evans’s liquid saxophone establish a softly rosy atmosphere, as if ascending into the clouds (I hear echoes of Vampire Weekend’s “Taxi Cab”).
Despite galvanizing bursts of prickly guitar static, shaggy dog stories like “Science Fair” and “Sunglasses” fail to resolve. Wood strings together countless amusing lines (“I am a modern Scott Walker/I am a surprisingly smooth talker,” say) into garbled dream narratives whose references to pop culture and current events gesture toward a sweeping, fractured picture of social dissolution (for example, “With frail hands she grips the NutriBullet/and the bite of its blades reminds me of a future that I am in no way part of”). Their general lack of evocative images suggests that Wood’s suspicion of language and coherence, reflected in his bored, talky delivery, is a rather more personal affliction.
“Everybody’s coming up/I guess I’m a little bit late to the party,” wails Wood on “Opus.” It’s an apt line. As Black Country, New Road know well, the trouble with “post-rock” is right there in the name. Dozens of genres have developed since rock’s inception that do not rely on the core instrumental unit of guitar, bass, and drums. Black Country, New Road — whose own name seems to evoke the challenge of coaxing novelty from something scorched and unusable — expand the rock band format while also conveying how it has trapped them and other artists of their generation as they’ve pushed a received style to its limits without quite breaking free.
In this context, their stiffness, both dinky and cumbersome, is crucial; they sound like they’re literally flailing around, throwing a musical tantrum. The guitar explosions are consistently interrupted and smoothed down, and the flareups of saxophone and violin serve as stumbling blocks rather than climactic devices — this is a music of thorns, bumps, obstacles. Rather than dispelling feelings of frustration and impotence by rocking cathartically, they almost rock, but some immovable existential force prevents them. This is the most frustrating outcome of all.
Pavement, a more conservative band in both their instrumental lineup and stylistic materials, explored similar artistic territory in the ’90s. As if rock was over and all the riffs had already been played, they frolicked in the ashes and assembled spare parts into new songs. But Pavement’s posthistorical games were always joyful, while Black Country, New Road’s ironic veneer of tragedy — largely thanks to the klezmer harmonies that mark key moments — casts a scarier light. Plenty of other contemporary bands have danced on rock’s grave — thus keeping it alive; plenty more have rendered apocalyptic scenes. Since the other genres they dabble in are all pre-rock, For the First Time depicts rock in an odd state of reverse aging, slipping backwards through time. Their anxiety over musical, historical, and political progress is clear.
As original as they may be, I doubt the style will catch on. Who would try to replicate such a frightening fever dream about the terrors of memory?