Album Reviews

Album Review: Black Country, New Road - For the First Time (Ninja Tune)

Sam Smith

There are times where you hear a song by a new band that completely stops you in your tracks. It is a rare thing, but It can happen. This occurred when I first heard the song “Sunglasses” by British group Black Country, New Road. I was floored. The song was completely out of the ordinary and nothing quite like what I had heard before. Excitingly, then, that same group has just released their first album, For the First Time, and to be quite frank, it is an early candidate for album of the year.

Formed in 2018 and part of a stable of bands based out of the Speedy Wunderground label that includes Black Midi and Squid, Black Country, New Road is a seven-piece band whom I guess you could describe as being post-punk or jazz-prog. More to the point, their music is very hard to describe, or indeed to pin down stylistically, making this new album that more intriguing as to what surprises lay in store.

At a pinch, if I had to compare For the First Time to something else, I would say it is King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King meets Bowie’s Black Star. The group features a saxophonist and violinist and they certainly wear their jazz and prog influences on their sleeve across the six tracks which are quite lengthy and contain instrumental jams and unconventional song structures devoid of choruses or any pop sensibilities.

The unconventional nature of the songs on For the First Time is evident from the get-go, with the opening track, simply titled “Instrumental” a high-octane prog-jazz instrumental jam featuring a drum solo, keyboard flourishes and plenty of brass that almost leaves you in a hypnotic state after five minutes of intense playing.

“Athens, France” offers a slight come down after the ferocious opening in what is a more conventional guitar-driven alty track. It is also on this track we first get to hear singer Isaac Wood’s Jarvis Cocker-like deadpan vocals, vocals that are more spoken word poetry than anything and are really the centrepiece of this album.

Pre-release single “Science Fair” begins with heavily distorted scratchy guitars before transitioning into a kind of experimental free jazz track featuring some very vivid and imaginative storytelling from Wood. I can very easily see this guy writing short stories and then reciting them at literary festivals and that is exactly the vibe I got out of this excellent track.

“Sunglasses” is the album centre-piece and as mentioned earlier was the first Black Country, New Road song I ever heard. It hooks you in from the first note of lo-fi grungy guitar and after nine minutes of tempo changes, eclectic Wood vocals and tight as heck musicianship you pretty much begin to think this is the best band on the planet, it is that good, and at this point is the archetype Black Country, New Road song.

The album then winds down with the ballad “Track X”, a song that also includes a namecheck of fellow label stablemates Black Midi, before the album climaxes with the stunningly good “Opus”, an absolute tour de force of a track with horns and violins playing off each in unison in what is the most explosive song on the album and what might just be my favourite song of 2021 so far.

I had massively high hopes for For the First Time after the quality of the singles and those hopes have absolutely been realised. Black Country, New Road have delivered a high-quality album of post-punk, prog, jazz and spoken word with For the First Time and in the process proven why they are for mine the most exciting new band in the UK at the moment.

This album is now a benchmark for quality music and musicianship in 2021 and has put the rest of the music world on notice with its experimental no holds barred sound. Whether anything comes along that could better this album in 2021 we shall see, but one thing is for certain, Black Country, New Road are just getting started and I for one cannot wait to see what they do next.

For The First Time  is out this Friday Feb 5th. Check it out Here

Written By: Sam Smith When he is not writing for Radio 13 Sam works in media and journalism at 95bFM radio and the University of Auckland. He also has is own personal music blog Nowhere Bros.