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Great Britain

Black Country, New Road review – truly a sound less travelled

There are, apparently, seven people on stage, making what sounds like eastern Mediterranean rave music. The lighting (of which there is little) and the dry ice (more copious) help to wrap Black Country, New Road in a haze of unreality.

Through the fog, the outline of a violin and the shape of a saxophone are visible; some silhouetted figures stand, some crouch. Eventually, one of the guitarists in BCNR begins intoning something. He builds to a holler and the band plunge into a lacerating workout, drawn mostly from early 90s post-hardcore punk. Beer flies past. Out of the anguish and feedback there eventually emerges the sweetest of melodies, on which violin and sax double up and keyboards provide icy atmospherics.

Most of Black Country, New Road’s tracks follow this pattern of resisting pattern, developing over several minutes; breaking down, pulling back together – a study in tension and release held to account by a fantastically able drummer. While the constituent parts of this mesmerising din are easily picked out – gnarly math-rock, like that of BCNR’s fellow travellers Black Midi, contemporary classical, jazz, klezmer – the effrontery of having all this music, all at once, feels genuinely daring. It also feels, thrillingly, like it might even take off this year.

Only two singles old, and still considering label options for their forthcoming debut album, BCNR sound both charmingly vestigial and utterly of the moment. Their debut single only came out this time last year but the old band they most patently resemble is Slint, a 90s US outfit whose mysterious, emotional excursions remain a byword for self-effacing intensity, if not large bank balances. There is another bit of backstory. Black Country, New Road is meant to suggest a “good way out of a bad place”, according to vocalist Isaac Wood. You suspect it refers in part to the demise of their pre-BCNR outfit Nervous Conditions, who disbanded in 2018 after their original singer was accused of sexual assault.

Black Country, New Road’s thoughtful, idiosyncratic fusions first gained traction thanks to a tenure at a London pub venue called the Windmill in Brixton, crucible of Fat White Family and many others. (In late December, BCNR joined forces on stage with Black Midi for a Black Midi, New Road special, where the conjoined bands played Wham! and Mariah Carey covers.)

Although BCNR are largely instrumental, their coverage thus far has tended to focus on the words of guitarist Wood. When his lyrics are present, they are highly writerly – full of elliptical narratives and changing perspectives – but are also studded with trashy pop culture references and curdled tales of bad sex. Wood told one interviewer recently that he was a virgin; an element of playing with the band’s public persona may be at work here. (“Fuck me like you mean it this time, Isaac!” runs one of Wood’s lyrics.) The chorus of Sunglasses, their best-known tune, is a perfectly turned Gen-Z rallying cry. “I’m more than adequate!” shouts Wood. “Leave Kanye out of this! Leave your sertraline in the cabinet!”

By contrast, Athen’s, France (the possessive is intentional) tells the tale of failed intimacy with an Ariana Grande fan; the lyrics quote Phoebe Bridgers’s Motion Sickness. The unreleased, but well-gigged Wet Sheets follows a dream Wood’s narrator has about Charli XCX taking a Svengali-like interest in his work. There are songs about fires at science fairs, and feeling out of step with the world. “Everybody’s coming up, I guess I’m late to the party,” notes Wood, several minutes into Opus, another pell-mell eastern Med bop.

Manchester audiences in particular appreciate these sorts of well-turned non sequiturs, and the spirit of the Fall lurks just offstage. More obscurely, there is the little-known 90s British outfit Joeyfat, who originally adapted the Slint sound to a more arch British tone. And BCNR are audibly British – they hail from Cambridge, largely, and most have known one another since secondary school. “I become her father,” runs one of Wood’s scenarios, “And complain of mediocre theatre in the daytime‚ and ice in single malt whisky at night/ Of rising skirt hems‚ lowering IQs, and things just aren’t built like they used to be.” He pauses. “The absolute pinnacle of British engineering!”

All these antecedents are moot, however, because the overall feeling at these two excellent gigs – the first in Yes’s Pink Room, and a second, after-hours set in the basement because the Pink Room sold out very quickly – resembles that of contemporary London jazz nights out, where a moshpit shouting along to a sax line is standard practice.

As it is, the four men and three women making this racket barely move around, even as crowdsurfers are held aloft by the basement audience. Such is the squeeze that at least four members of BCNR – violin player Georgia Ellery, bassist Tyler Hyde, guitarist Luke Mark and Wood – all play side-on to the crowd, their physical limitations adding to the tension. They have two-and-a-half front-people: all the way over to the left, Wood resists the role. It falls to sax player Lewis Evans to provide a focal point. Ellery is at the front too, surveying the crowd coolly. There are cries of “Tyler!” – Hyde, daughter of Underworld’s Karl, studies at Manchester’s art school, while a significant proportion of her bandmates have done time at the Guildhall School in London.

These are, ultimately, 21-year-olds making music for other 21-year-olds, for whom genre is a superseded hang-up. Bucking the culture of instant gratification, however, BCNR’s union of styles and emotions works. Irresolute and open-ended, it is somehow triumphal, a full-court press of dread and beauty, positively rewarding close attention and resisting easy analysis. Are you meant to dance, or rend your clothing at the ineffable nihilism of the endless scroll?

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