On February 4, 2022, an up-and-coming seven-piece outfit from England dropped a sophomore record that would end up becoming one of my very favorite albums of the year. That same week, just a few days prior to the record’s release, the band of seven had been reduced to a band of six — the lead singer had officially left the group.
The lead was Isaac Wood, the record was “Ants from Up There” and the up-and-coming seven-piece outfit from England was Black Country, New Road. Though Wood’s exit from the group was an amicable one, his departure left the little indie-rock orchestra that could without a frontman right as their musical careers were beginning to take off, leaving fans curious and a bit concerned about the band’s trajectory.
A frontman like Isaac Wood is impossible to replace. In the year since its release, I have listened to every track on “Ants from Up There” more times than I can count. On each and every repeat listen, I am thrown into an emotional meat grinder. Wood’s vocals are raw and quivering. He dives into songs with a screaming, aching grandiosity that shakes me to my atoms.
Go lie down and listen to the last few tracks on that second album. Wood left a big pair of basketball shoes to fill.
No matter how great a band is, the loss of a member, especially the lead vocalist, brings a lot of uncertainty to the table. I myself, and I imagine plenty of other fans, anxiously asked themselves “how do you replace the irreplaceable?”
And, in a blossoming orchestral bellow, Black Country, New Road sang back, “you don’t.”
“Live at Bush Hall,” released just over a year from the group’s prior album, opens with the nervous call of a familiar saxophone. It is equal parts an entrance theme and a frantic cry into the unknown. Bassist Tyler Hyde replies in fluttery, operatic conversation, assuring the uneasy sax and the listener that there is nothing to worry about. We are in good hands.
In typical Black Country, New Road fashion, the opening “Up Song” escalates from a stripped back conference between voice and instrument to an intricate, extravagant crescendo. Hyde is joined by the other members of the band for the song’s triumphant refrain, proudly exclaiming to the world and their former frontman, “Look at what we did together, BCNR friends forever.”
It’s one of the sweetest opening tracks I’ve ever heard.
The rest of the record is imbued with a similar sentiment. Hyde wails a sentimental string of pleasant memories on the haunting “Laughing Song,” and the multi-instrumental Lewis Evans leads the way on “The Wrong Trousers,” belting with earnest sincerity “though you hurt, feel like you’ve lost me, I turn around and look back kindly. For we made something, something to be proud of.”
“Live at Bush Hall” is a love letter to music, camaraderie and Isaac Wood, but it is also a triumph of perseverance and growth. It grants itself the room it needs to reflect on the group’s great loss, but it does not wallow. Wood’s exit from the group is sad, but it is also an opportunity to take the band in a brand new direction, and BCNR soars with this.
“‘Live at Bush Hall’ is a love letter to music, camaraderie and Isaac Wood, but it is also a triumph of perseverance and growth. It grants itself the room it needs to reflect on the group’s great loss, but it does not wallow. Wood’s exit from the group is sad, but it is also an opportunity to take the band in a brand new direction, and BCNR soars with this.”
Few people have a voice like Wood, but his absence allows the remaining six members to fill the spotlight. The other members of the band pass vocal responsibilities around, and each of them brings a lot of personality to their respective songs. In addition to Hyde and Evans voices, keyboardist May Kershaw’s delicate warbling carries songs like the sprawling, somber fable of “The Boy,” and violinist Georgia Ellery, drummer Charlie Wayne and guitarist Luke Mark provide backing vocals throughout the album.
With every record, BCNR has shown a willingness to shake up their sound, and “Live at Bush Hall” is perhaps the greatest example of this. It is, in many ways, a step away from the raw romantic anguish of “Ants from Up There” and the paranoid tumbling post-rock of their debut “For the First Time,” leaning further into the orchestral sounds of chamber music that percolate the band’s prior records.
But while the album’s sound is distinct, the unmistakable current of Black Country, New Road’s signature sound runs through the entirety of the project. It just takes on a slightly different flavor.
The seventh track, “Turbines/Pigs,” in it’s nine and a half minutes of devastating, escalating glory is reminiscent of tracks off of “Ants from Up There,” but a stripped-down piano and Kershaw’s fragile vocals trade some of Wood’s tortured wailing for a more delicate touch. It is gorgeous.
I don’t love “Live at Bush Hall” in the way I do “Ants from Up There,” but it is an incredible achievement. Black Country, New Road has taken the pieces left in the wake of an enormous loss and turned them into something new, beautiful and all their own. Any uncertainty I had about the group has been extinguished. This up-and-coming six-piece outfit from England is going to be alright.
Gerrit Punt PO ’24 loves this album so much he forgot to include any jokes in this article. He’s usually funnier. He promises.