By Lexi Weaver || Copy Editor
For fans of British rock band Black Country, New Road, the band’s future became uncertain after the departure of former lead singer Isaac Wood just days before the release of their sophomore album, Ants From Up There, in February 2022. However, in recent months, the rest of the band has continued playing shows with all-original material, culminating in a concert film and its subsequent release on streaming. Ants From Up There was my favorite album of 2022, so when news of new music was released, I was anticipating both the prospect of new songs and what the band would sound like in Wood’s absence. What Live at Bush Hall demonstrates is the endless innovation of one of the most exciting and experimental bands in rock, and how the six-piece was able to chart their own path rather than simply recreate the uniqueness of Wood’s performances. The album (along with the concert film) exemplifies the spirit of Black Country, New Road—from the tenuous first notes of saxophone to the resounding applause of an audience thrilled with the long-awaited return of Black Country, New Road.
Black Country, New Road (or BCNR) is at the forefront of the current British post-punk and experimental rock movement, constantly challenging the conventions of guitar music. The six piece band consists of Tyler Hyde (bass), Luke Mark (guitar), May Kershaw (keyboard), Georgia Ellery (violin), Lewis Evans (saxophone/flute), and Charlie Wayne (drums). Rather than having one lead vocalist, Hyde, Kershaw, and Evans switch vocals from song to song, each lending a different atmosphere to the music. The concert film that preceded the album takes a unique approach—covering three nights of recording, the band used the frame device of fictional theatrical performances to play up the slight artifice of an intentionally recorded live performance. The three shows, one a high school prom night, one a pastoral set on a farm, and one set at a haunted pizza parlor, all feature sets created by the band members themselves. The idea of playing up the theatricality of this live recording fits well with the music, which stylistically is another turn from the previous album, lyrically and musically. Replete with costumes and in-character ad libbing, the film version of this performance brings another level of artistry to the album.
The album kicks off with the squeaky, uncertain sound of Evans on saxophone on the opener “Up Song.” As the melody develops and Hyde comes in on vocals, two driving chords usher in the full band, with a rush of piano, guitar, and drums. The switch between loud and soft dynamics is a stand-out on this track, which are often enforced by alternating between lesser and more full instrumentation. One of the most striking moments of this is Ellery moving between playing pizzicato in a moment when it is just her and Hyde, then playing violin with her bow once the rest of the band enters. The chorus kicks off with unison singing; the lyrics “BCNR friends forever” summing up the camaraderie and love the band members have for each other, and their dynamic and ability to play off each other throughout the songs is truly captured in this line. The original saxophone line continues throughout the song, melding beautifully with the more classically rock elements demonstrated by Mark on guitar and Wayne’s drumming, which is a stand out part of the track. Being able to hear the audience’s excitement on this recording truly adds something special, and the album version keeps in Hyde speaking to the audience after the song ends, as she explains the nature of their gig with a witty cry of “Happy Prom Night!”
Most of the tracks feature bassist Hyde on lead vocals, and her style of singing and the music on those tracks is probably the most similar to earlier BCNR music. On their two albums with Wood, the music had a darker, more post-punk sound, which I think the Hyde-led tracks exemplify. On songs like “I Won’t Always Love You,” the opening uses instrumentation reminiscent of chamber music, as she describes the end of a relationship and the messy experience of coming to terms with these complicated emotions. As the song moves from her still having feelings for this person at the start (“I will always love you and I will always want you”), by the end of the opening she has realized “I won’t always love you,” and the questioning of this other person’s feelings towards her propels the song into its raucous middle section. The build up here, led by drums and guitar, is accented with whoops from the crowd. The emotion in Hyde’s voice as it quavers is the vocal equivalent to the song’s incredible instrumental breakdown at the end.
Evans and Kershaw are the other lead vocalists here, singing on two tracks each, “Across The Pond Friend” and “The Wrong Trousers,” and “The Boy” and “Turbines/Pigs,” respectively. Evans’s songs both have clear narratives, as they describe mundanity and everyday life: lines like “We watched a film and had a cry” on “Across The Pond Friend” are striking in their genuine simplicity and relatability. The violin on this song and the very orchestral power chords at the end are highlights. “The Wrong Trousers” is an emotional song unpacking the complicated emotions surrounding Isaac Wood’s departure from the band, celebrating how they made “something to be proud of” in the midst of this emotional turmoil. The intimacy displayed here is elevated by Hyde’s gorgeous backing vocals.
On the other hand, Kershaw’s songs have a strong narrative bend as well, but feel more like fables than personal anecdotes. This is seen especially on “The Boy,” which uses literal chapter breaks and animal characters to depict the story of a robin on its quest to fix its broken wing. Here, Evans is featured on flute, which adds a whimsical quality to the song. However, Kershaw truly shines on the sprawling 9-minute track “Turbines/Pigs.” The song follows the speaker, a witch, with unsettling and dark, yet beautiful imagery such as in lines like “Slept beside the maggots and worms / Chewed through the mess that we made” and “Blood dripping down onto the broom…Mixed with your tears seeped to the ground.” The last two minutes are fully instrumental, with the drums especially driving it to its conclusion, and its eventual resolution.
“Dancers” might be one of my favorite tracks on the album, another led by Hyde that begins quiet and reserved, eventually bursting with anger and frustration, all contained in the biting repetition of “Dancers stand very still on the stage.” This track has some of the best guitar riffs on the album, and its loud and scattered (but still very purposeful) sound is very reminiscent of early BCNR. The wail of Evans on saxophone at the end is incredible, alongside the screams of the backing vocals. “Laughing Song” is another track I love, with its standout element being the repetition of recurring motifs throughout the album. This is something that has come up in earlier BCNR albums, and I appreciated how it captured this essence while not exactly replicating how Wood approached it in his lyrics.
On the whole, Live at Bush Hall is an inspired new direction for Black Country, New Road. The band has expanded upon its unique opportunities its lineup of musicians provides, leaning more into a sound that mixes experimental art rock with chamber music. As a set of songs that either explicitly or implicitly deal with the departure of not just a fellow musician but a close friend, Live at Bush Hall tackles love, friendship, loss, anger, and hope, sometimes all at once. It’s a complex album musically, lyrically, and emotionally, but as it closes with a slower reprise of opener “Up Song,” listeners can then fully appreciate the journey from robins to turbines, trousers to dancers, reveling in the tumultuous beauty and emotional intensity of one of the most consistently innovative and exciting bands today.
Junior Lexi Weaver is a Copy Editor. Her email is email@example.com.