Black Country, New Road – Ants From Up There
Black Country, New Road’s second album already marks the end of a breakthrough era for the experimental post-rockers. In the week of Ants From Up There’s release, frontman Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band, citing mental health issues. It may be the broad-stroke textures of the full seven-piece – taking in free jazz workouts, math rock and klezmer touches – that brought a breadth, lustre and ricochet energy to last year’s Top 5 debut album For the First Time. But it was Wood’s tremulous sprechgesang vocals (part David Byrne, part Orlando Weeks, part baritone Jarvis Cocker) and impressionist lyrics speckled with pop culture references – Kanye West, Danish crime dramas, the Fonz – that provided its cutting south London edge.
If a cult grew around the debut, Wood’s swansong is a blow-out open to all-comers. Elegant, disjointed baroque motifs still brew for minutes, gathering gorgeous tumbles of piano, flute, violin, guitar, percussion and jazz club saxophone while Wood trills lugubriously of death, technological isolation, girls with “Billie Eilish style” and the Atkins diet. But now, embracing accessibility, they bloom into glorious carnival sway-alongs (“The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”), alt-folk waltzes (“Concorde”) and glam showtunes with choruses that might prompt cease-and-desist orders from The Killers (“Chaos Space Marine”). Time signatures still shift and turn like inconstant tides, but here they don’t just buck off the melody, they chase down the next.
With grunge rock crescendos accompanying images of burning starships on “Good Will Hunting”, and gargantuan arias on the 12-minute “Basketball Shoes”, the sheer grace and ambition of Ants… will prove tough for 2022 to top. A huge leap forward, headfirst into the unknown. MB
Bastille – Give Me the Future
“The future is doomed” is the maxim on which art increasingly operates. Music, paintings, literature – they all predict bad things ahead. But on Bastille’s fourth outing, a shimmering pop record, the ever-dependable four-piece practically beg for what’s next. Give Me the Future offers a rare moment of optimism for what’s to come.
An ambient opener effectively sets the scene for a techie album. Lyrical references to “AI”, “virtual porn”, “rockets to Mars” and “driverless cars” feel a little too on the nose at times, but they do give the record’s cinematic vastness something solid to hang on to. There is a tempting sense of denial underpinning Give Me the Future. “Don’t wake me up,” frontman Dan Smith sings on “Distorted Light Beam”. “Tell me we’ll be fine,” he pleads on “Plug In…”, one of the album’s moodier tracks. The sentiment is most pithily put by British actor Riz Ahmed in a spoken-word interlude: “The world’s burning but f*** it.” On Give Me the Future, denial functions as hope. It’s not damning or static. Instead, it flutters across the album’s 13 tracks, defiantly shaking off any encroaching cynicism.
The record itself functions like an escape pod. When confined within Bastille’s catchy hooks and imaginative, era-spanning production, what lies ahead suddenly isn’t so terrible. The future is bright – for 30 minutes’ worth of bops, at least. AN
Cate Le Bon – Pompeii
Cate Le Bon’s Pompeii opens with an ominous rumbling of bass and mournful puffs of brass. Underneath is a steady rhythm, a thwock against metal. Time is running out. Chaos is incoming. Yet the Welsh artist’s sixth album never fully unleashes that chaos; she restrains it, wrestles with it, and in doing so exacerbates its sense of unease.
Written in complete isolation in Cardiff, Pompeii demonstrates Le Bon’s flair for the surreal, while exploring themes close to home: religious guilt, family, death. It’s certainly less chirpy than her buoyant, freewheeling 2019 album, Reward. Yet that record’s divergent opening track “Miami” can now be seen as a kind of precursor, of something that’s clearly been at the back of Le Bon’s mind for some time. “But I can’t put my finger on it,” she sings now, on “Moderation”. “I wanna cry, I’m out of my mind/ Tryna figure it out.”
Le Bon’s dressing as a nun in the title track’s music video, and the “habit” reference in “Moderation”, feel like an exploration both of her own childhood constraints and the more widely experienced emotional restrictions imposed on women. She’d wanted to record this album in her new home, among sprawling deserts and vast skies of Joshua Tree, California, but instead found herself trapped in her childhood bedroom. “It’s my pillow and plate/ To not care anymore,” she murmurs on “Running Away”, traversing a Bowie-indebted quagmire of brass squelches.
There’s more “Starman”-era sass on “Remembering Me”, on which Le Bon considers her legacy vs the “classical rewrite” of what might have been. It’s fascinating that her album should arrive at the same time as one by fellow avant-garde act Animal Collective: both are absorbed by humanity’s futile struggles in the face of the inevitable, along with the individual histories we leave behind. “I’ve buckled like a wheel,” she sings on the closing track, as if to say, even our greatest inventions get broken eventually. ROC
Animal Collective – Time Skiffs
Back into the wilderness we go. As society attempts to find its footing post-lockdown, the Baltimore-formed Animal Collective observe the strange elasticity of time on their first record in six years. “The minutes can’t make up their mind/ Just how long they’d like to be,” singer Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) croons on “Car Keys”, over wriggling xylophone notes, keyboard squirms and skewwhiff percussion. The answer, like the music, seems to escape him.
The group’s Beach Boys influences make for transcendent, celestial-sounding harmonies on “Walker”, a playful tribute to British-American teen pop sensation turned avant-garde artist Scott Walker. The lyrics have a touch of nihilism about them. “I’m ready for the takeoff/ Just been standin’ ’round,” Lennox sings, then later: “Appreciate you cannot wait/ We’ll see you out there.”
Time Skiffs mostly sticks to the otherworldly, spaced-out sound Animal Collective have been known for since 2003. But now the band members are in their forties, there’s a new sense of groundedness, as though, faced with certain inevitabilities, they feel more connected than ever to the world around them. Lennox observes people on the subway over shuffling synth grooves on “Cherokee”, while “We Go Back” has a panicked tone: “I feel the urge to turn back time.” Closer “Royal and Desire” lapses into a calm pool, rippled by leisurely strums of guitar. It’s like the band are bowing before time, which sounds like quite a magnificent way to go out. ROC