Ants From Up There: A Sprawling, Serene Catharsis
Black Country, New Road’s latest release Ants From Up There is an album that must be soaked in. It permeates from an outer membrane, floats around you like droplets in the sky until you are absorbed too. The band captures the theatricality of their previous releaseー For the first timeー with a renewed sense of meditative and intimate quietude. The album increases in intensity throughout, beginning with the joyous and catchy “Chaos Space Marine” and building up to the catharsis of “Basketball Shoes.” Isaac Wood, through his singing and lyricism, explores themes of lost love, humiliation, and escapism. Following Wood’s departure from the band in late January, Ants From Up There is Isaac Wood’s final contribution to Black Country New Road; nevertheless the album showcases the members' many talents and signals a brighter future ahead. Ants From Up There is a series of folded love-letters, tossed out to the sea, where they disappear as dots on the horizon like how cars on city streets resemble ants when viewed from afar.
The album starts with a whimsical intro, like stepping into a fantasy world. Beginning with just the saxophone, the other instruments gradually begin to trickle in until the band is unified together; as if they are warming up before a show. Black Country, New Road manages to feel spur-of-the-moment and intricately rehearsed at the same time. The album has an improvisational feeling; as Wood says about “Haldern” from later on in the album, it “aims to capture the magic of the moment, a one-off musical creation that can never be entirely replicated again.” There is truly something magical about their playing: it feels as if every musician is confined to their own stages but they are tied together innate sense of attunements binds their separate parts together. The crisp mixing of the album (produced by Sergio Maschetzo) allows for every individual instrument to be picked out. Every musician is given a moment to shine, from Georgia Ellery’s wistful violin solo in “Snow Globes,” to May Kershaw’s beautiful piano opening in “The Place He Inserted the Blade,” and especially with Lewis Evans’ mournful saxophone solo in “Mark’s Theme.” The song, which is dedicated to Evans’ deceased uncle, becomes especially poignant when the other instruments join in a bitter-sweet elegy, as if the many players are reuniting at the heavenly gates. The contrast between solitary and unity musicality in the album creates a wayward sensation, like the musicians are communicating from distant stars and we are witnesses to an intercepted transmission.
The first lyrical track of Ants From Up There is “Chaos Space Marine.” The song is one of Black Country, New Road’s more conventionally written pieces, with a (relatively short) three-minute run time and a standard verse-chorus-bridge arrangement. The song tells the story of a man embarking on a journey (“And though England is mine / I must leave it all behind,”) with the bright-eyed dramatics of a departure scene from a movie-musical. “Chaos Space Marine” alludes to escapism, such as when Wood sings “I'll bury the axe here / Between the window and the kingdom of men,” implying he’ll make peace in some liminal, possibly non-existent, place . The song introduces the “Concorde” airship, a motif that will be repeated throughout as a metaphor for escaping to an ideal state. In the following track, “Concorde,” the name-sake becomes a vessel of comfort. In the song, Wood directly addresses Concorde, describing his physically ill and defeated state. He yearns for the company of his lost beloved, where he compares them to the Concorde, leading to the chorus where Wood sings: “And you, like Concorde / I came, a gentle hill racer / I was breathless upon every mountain / Just to look for your light.” Here Wood conjures imagery akin to a scene from Wuthering Heights, as the narrator dashes across the hill searching for his loved one. He expresses undying hope for a love which, for all we know, may not even be there anymore.
Central to Ants From Up There is the romance between Wood and his lover; rather, the absence of said romance. “Bread Song” looks at the aftermath of a failed relationship, where Wood sees himself picking up the bread crumbs left behind. If For the first time saw Wood yelling and wailing, Ants From Up There captures him at a tender side, where he quivers like a trapped animal: “I never felt the crumbs until you said ‘This place is not for any man nor particles of bread.’” The track navigates romance in a digital world, with mentions FaceTime calls and WiFi signals. Such as when Wood sings, “No-one had WiFi inside your apartment so we knelt at the altar.” Not only is this lyric a commentary on modern society’s dependence on the Internet, but the line draws a parallel between devotion to technology and to a relationship. Wood, in his lyrics, blames failure on poor signals, ignoring the reality that the failure likely lies within the relationship itself. Still, Wood remains hopelessly devoted, praying to an altar that won’t respond. Again, we see the theme of escaping and ignoring the truth. Bread, in the context of this song, represents something filling yet not nutritious; a substance which provides only momentary relief. The warm guitar (Luke Mark) and strings (Ellery) situate the listener in a feeling of homeliness, but as Wood’s singing grows more pained and the drumming increases to a resounding intensity of a forlorn heart, it becomes impossible to ignore the pervading sadness of the song.
The next track, “Good Will Hunting” feels like a disjointed portrait of aforementioned relationship, as the song alternates between key changes, catchy riffs, and a patchwork pre-chorus where two voices bombard each other in a series of one-off exchanges (“You call / I'll be there / What's more? / I’m scared of the phone / Don't ring it / Please know / That I’m just trying to find / Some way to keep me in your mind.”) The song creates a build-up through the guitar and drums, only to subvert this build-up by regressing back to softness. Even the noisiest final moments of the song end with an exasperated breath. The most powerful image of the song is when Wood is escaping a burning spaceship, he sings “Oh, I'd wait there / Float with the wreckage… And you bring some piece of the stars.” The song tells the tale of an unsalvageable love, as Wood finds “something to hold onto.” While it is not revealed why exactly the relationship failed, Wood alludes to personal damageー in the same way that the film Good Will Hunting shows Will Hunting struggling to accept the affection of his girlfriend because his trauma has led him to feel unlovable. “Haldern” also addresses this feeling of being unable to love, where Wood paints the imagery of a dug-up hole and broken bodies, singing “I turn my face and hide in shame / You take my tired body in…/ And you pray for the pain to leave him.” The focus on the fragile piano part exemplifies the feeling of broken vulnerability, as the track is stripped back before being slowly filled by the other musicians. The song, as well as the album as a whole, captures that ingrained sense of inadequacy in the face of love.
“Lover” in this case does not necessarily denote an actual romantic partner. The romance that Wood mourns for could easily be interpreted as his own relationship with fame, where his passion for music comes at the sacrifice of his own well-being. The vulnerability that Wood exhibits can be seen as his own reckoning with being perceived by an audience, and the pressure that comes with it. Even when his role as front man is straining, Wood feels the need to hold onto a sense of idealism. Considering that Wood left the band days before the release of the album, it isn’t hard to imagine him aboard his own Concorde, flying away. Regardless of the true identity or nature of the subject, it is clear that the lyrics and music are deeply personal to Wood and the rest of the band.
The final three songsー “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade,” “Snow Globe,” and “Basketball Shoes,” ー are orchestral feats, spanning nearly half of the albums 58 minute runtime.
“The Place Where He Inserted the Blade,” paints an embrace of domesticity. Wood depicts nostalgic and homely comforts of schoolyards and home cooking, where he once again expresses doting affection for his partnerー “Every time I try to make lunch / For anyone else, in my head/ I end up dreaming of you.” The song starts gently with the delicate piano, guitar, and flute in harmony with each other, though by the end the song has erupted into a full symphony, in typical Black Country, New Road fashion, with the members singing together as a chorus. The domestic bliss established at the beginning of the song is also vanquished, as Wood comes to realise that the fantasy he envisioned for himself is a one-sided delusion. He sings: “But, darlin’, I see that you’re not really sleeping,” revealing that his partner does not share his same dream. In the end, Wood comes to realise he is abandoned.
This leads us to “Snow Globes,” which sees Wood at his most sunken point. The first three minutes of the song are peaceful instrumentals, contrasting between the sweeping strings and the brasses with staccato of the guitar and bassー feeling like wind blowing against a snowfall. The song sees Wood talking to an elusive “Henry,” referred to in the song as a “god of weather.” “Snow Globes” illustrates a spiritual freefall, as Wood lets go and prays for divine mercy. As the song progresses, Wood’s drumming becomes increasingly out-of-control, Wood becoming an erratic madman whose lost sense of the music. As he repeats: “Snow globes don't shake on their own,” a line which can be interpreted as things necessitating a divine cause. Objects don’t move on their own, they need to be started by an external force; in the context of Wood’s confinement, this could mean either Wood having to take matters into his own hands, or (more pessimistically) Wood becoming complacent and disillusioned and allowing others to shake the snow globe. The song begins to fade, as the musicians disappear around Wood until all that is left is a single guitar repeating and repeating a riffー completely forsaken and alone.
Which leaves us with “Basketball Shoes,” the song was first performed in 2019, making it the oldest song on the album, creating a cyclical quality to the album as a whole. The song ties together all the earlier motifs of Ants From Up There: the soaring Concorde, the house, childhood playgrounds; all of these images torn to shreds. The song can be divided into three
distinct sections, all separated by instrumental breaks. First, we have the slow, jangling introduction, where the music seems to reconstruct itself and pick up the broken ends. Here, Wood tells us he’s changed, “Train rides don't hurt much these days / We're all working on ourselves, and we're praying that the rest don't mind how much we've changed,” Even if he is still self-conscious and pitiful, at least he is making progress. From here, there is an interlude where the leitmotif from “Chaos Space Marine” reoccurs, calling back to the beginning of the album. The violin picks up the tune, reconfiguring and accelerating it to propel us to the next segment of the song. The next section features an upbeat key change, implying a forced sense of happiness. Wood’s voice here gets close to yelling as he sings, “And the clamp is a cracked smile cheek / And it tortures me.” For all the efforts to ameliorate his situation, he still feels trapped. “Basketball Shoes” is a bittersweet moment of clarity, where Wood awakens to reality.
The final moments of the album are earth-shattering catharsis, as all the instruments unite to slowly play the opening/closing leitmotif, intercut with a massive cymbal and choir giving the song the epic quality of a Tchaikovsky pieceー all that’s missing is the canons. It’s a monumental moment that completes the cycle of the album, providing the listener with a sense of fulfilment. Ants From Up There ends with Wood jolting awake. He wakes up wet in his bed, probably implying he had a wet dream (which would be a crude and hilarious twist to end the album,) though maybe the wetness could be from tears, pool water, or embryonic fluid. The end sees Wood flailing, gasping for a fresh breath of air as he awakens to a new life, free from the suffocating chains that once tied him.
As a whole, Ants From Up There is a cerebral musical reflection, crafting a journey that leaves you feeling rearranged after listening to it. It’s a rare album that I’d call perfect; not only in the meticulous and well-crafted sense of the word, but also in it’s raw emotion and vulnerability, exploring both deeply personal pangs as well as wider societal anxieties. Wood writes to many different types of relationshipsー between his ex-lover, his inner self, his band mates, and especially the listener. It’s hard not to see Ants From Up There as a farewell letter, where Wood indulges in the sweetness of being a front man while also explaining why exactly he had to go. The album itself is incredibly bittersweetー the playful chords suddenly take on a saccharine feel when juxtaposed with the abject desperation and depression of the record. There is also a sadness in knowing that Ants From Up There will never be performed live (though there are existing recordings of many earlier versions of the songs.) The album thus lives on as a stationary studio recording, where it can pass with grace in perfect, unsullied memory.
In the final seconds of the last track, you can hear a door close faintly; serving both as a goodbye gesture to Black Country, New Road as we know them and also as a reminder of the real people behind the music who work tirelessly in the studio. Wherever the band goes next is sure to be thrilling, though it’s crucial to be kind and forgiving to the musicians; to see them as humans, just as vulnerable as us, and not as musical manufactures.