It was Thursday night, Feb. 3, around 10 p.m. An album I had been looking forward to for the past few weeks was set to be released the next day. I was having trouble sleeping and started lazily browsing an online music forum to see what new music people were talking about. Surprisingly, I saw several posts talking about the very album I thought wouldn’t be released until after I woke up the next morning.
The band is from the U.K., and it was already well past midnight there. The new Black Country, New Road album, “Ants from Up There,” was already out.
At first I thought I would just go to bed and listen to it the next day, but the things people were saying on that forum caught my attention. “Decade defining.” “The best album I’ve ever heard.” “Even better than the bands who influenced them.”
I saw the album was less than an hour long, so I pressed play. “Intro” started with an incredibly cleanly produced saxophone riff in five-four. Interesting start. “Chaos Space Marine” came in with a goofy song title, but intrigued me with its orchestral chorus and cryptic lyrics. Cool change of pace. Let’s see what the next song is like.
By the time the final crescendo of “Concorde” hit, I was on the verge of tears and texting friends telling them that they had to listen to this amazing album that just came out. I was only three songs in.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what makes me love “Ants from Up There” so much because it isn’t just one thing. It’s a rare occasion when every single element that goes into an album, from songwriting to performances to often-overlooked elements like mixing and sequencing, is done with such care. Each detail comes together in a vibrant collage to form a bigger picture.
One way to talk about it could be by just throwing genre labels at it. It’s an indie-rock album that pits the band’s post-punk roots against symphonic post-rock and chamber pop. It’s art rock, math rock, prog, some other Frankenstein genre that music journalists are going to try to make up in the future. Sure, it can spark curiosity to describe an album like this, but throwing a million genres at the wall does not automatically make for great music.
Or you could talk about the emotions conveyed by the album. Its lyrics are abstract and metaphorical in ways that are hard to decipher at first, but they still manage to portray a deep sense of loneliness and anxiety, even when you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what “the clamp is a cracked smile cheek” means. But even with the downtrodden lyrics, the music prefers joyous bursts of noise to desolate soundscapes.
Or you could even frame it through the lens of behind-the-scenes context. The band’s lead singer and lyricist Isaac Wood announced that he would be leaving the band to focus on his own mental health just a few days before the album was released. When knowing this, the ambition and emotional grandiosity of the music can change meaning, becoming a loving send-off to a pivotal band member. Many of the disjointed and unhappy lyrics can also be explained as the thoughts of someone who is struggling with the pressure of performing for an audience both on and off stage.
None of these angles are bad, but they are incomplete on their own. The album isn’t just a sad rock album with lyrics written by somebody struggling with his mental health. Likewise, it isn’t just a joyous musical experiment made to sound as theatrical as possible. So when all else fails, you can just describe what actually happens in the album.
The opening three-track run from “Intro” to “Concorde” is enough to get you hooked, but it doesn’t tell you the full emotional palette of the record. Track four, “Bread Song,” introduces a melancholic minimalistic streak that was not present on either of the first two full songs. It swells with rattling piano chords and fluttering cymbals without any specific time signature in the first half, all while lead singer Isaac Wood pens devastating lyrics about being belittled by a partner.
“Good Will Hunting” then comes in with a quirkier instrumental that gives the song a lighthearted feel, that is until even more cutting lyrics come in describing the feeling of anxiously waiting for somebody to re-enter your life, even though you know they probably never will.
“Haldern” and “Mark’s Theme” both build on the minimalism introduced earlier, with the former being a semi-improvised violin-driven piece that builds into one of the album’s most satisfying peaks. The latter is a hushed instrumental driven by a saxophone melody, dedicated to a band member’s uncle who died of COVID while the band was writing the album.
At this point, I was already incredibly impressed to say the least. But in the broader context of the album, every song previously mentioned is just a build-up for one of the best endings to an album I have ever heard. The last three songs are the three longest on the record, with each being even longer than the last, but the nearly 30 minutes that is taken up by them collectively goes by in a flash.
The one I want to focus on, though, is the closing song “Basketball Shoes,” a 12-minute three-part epic that music journalists and YouTube commenters alike have dubbed as the band’s best song yet. Each of the three sections could have been full songs on their own, as each of them reach sonic climaxes that you would think would be good enough to end the album. But each peak is bigger than the last, until the final minute turns into an overwhelming chorus of saxophone and life-affirming “la la la”s.
I realized recently that I have yet to write a negative review for this publication. I never considered why up until this point, but I think it has something to do with the fact that these issues only come out once a month, so I want to use this precious time to focus on great art instead of ranting about the bad. Because of this, I run the risk of seeming like I think “Ants from Up There” is exactly as good as any fairly enjoyable album. Personally, I think that the vast majority of great albums do still have flaws, as is virtually unavoidable in creating 30-plus minutes of music.
“Ants from Up There” does not.
I genuinely believe that this is one of the greatest albums to come out in the past decade. If you, reader, think that attaching a numerical score to a piece of art cheapens its value, then I apologize in advance. But frankly, I don’t know how else to say it; this album is a 10.
At the time I am writing this, it has been exactly two weeks since this album was released. In that time, I have probably listened to it at least six or seven times, and I am still finding things to love about it. Now I sit in front of a computer screen and wonder if some of the greatest albums of all time, “Pet Sounds,” “Songs in the Key of Life,” “OK Computer,” did fans who listened to them the day they came out knew that they were listening to one of the greatest albums of all time.
I do not know if “Ants from Up There” will be considered a classic 20 years down the line, but I know that it makes me feel the same gratitude for the existence of art that those other albums do. It, like those albums, reminded me why I love music.