In 2018 an eclectic group of musicians, several of whom had been playing together in other settings for years, finally molded together into the seven-piece Frankenstein monster Black Country, New Road. Bringing together their histories with punk rock, classical music, and traditional Jewish wedding music, Black Country manages to combine very different energies into something that embraces chaos while simultaneously achieving an impressive sense of refinement.
The last three years have seen the band emerge fairly immediately as something to pay attention to, gaining high praise for their live shows from the likes of Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. This has put them in a strange limbo where they’ve been putting out music and evolving at the same time. Rather than release a record that shows an outdated or inauthentic version of the music, the band has chosen to re-record its first two singles, “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses,” sharpening the production to a laser point and replacing several old raunchy lines with more image-heavy and aggressive ones.
Despite the general tendency toward maturity, For the First Time is never in danger of taking itself too seriously. “Sunglasses” in particular shows how honing your craft and becoming better musicians can actually make your music a lot more fun to listen to. After an extended instrumental intro, the song settles into a sturdy post-rock backdrop, building up gradually from there until the beat switches to a tense groove that sounds like it could have been ripped straight from Spiderland. Lyrics like “Leave Kanye out of this” recall contemporaries like Idles as the song breaks out of its cage and into an adrenaline-pumped barrage of guitars and saxophones.
On the other hand, “Track X” proves saxophonist Lewis Evans correct about Black Country’s newfound biggest asset: “We can play quietly.” In contrast with the fiery tone of the rest of the album, this track – the only one to clock in under the five-minute mark – takes notes from Steve Reich to create a much subtler, more hypnotic atmosphere. The background humor is not lost even in this quietest iteration of the band (namedropping their close touring companions with “I told you I loved you in front of Black Midi”), but it represents the band’s ability to maintain its identity even as they lean into more pleasant territory.
Those who have been paying attention to Black Country, New Road since the beginning will notice that two thirds of this track list has already been released as singles in some form or another. Luckily, one of the two new songs is the closing track “Opus,” which is the most direct showing of the band’s klezmer roots and also by far the most unhinged part of the album. The breakneck saxophones and strings pummel forward like the horses of the apocalypse, leaving space to breathe in the verses but always returning to its most ballistic form. By default, this album hovers a notch below the boiling point, which makes the ultra-dramatic ending payoff all the more rewarding.
It takes a special kind of artist to be able to instinctively see that they still have room to make a good thing better. In a relatively short amount of time, Black Country, New Road have taken their already fantastic raw material and pressed it into a diamond. Their insistence on re-recording and improving material turns out to be well worth the effort, elevating already beloved young songs to a new plane. Given that many of these changes were made in hopes of capturing a better representation of what it’s like to see this band live, it’s clear that a BCNR show should be a top post-pandemic priority for anyone who loves good music.