Black Country, New Road’s ‘Live at Bush Hall’: The Return/Reinvention of Post-Punk

Shadman Rahman deep dives on one of the best British Indie bands right now.

On March 24th of this year, experimental rock band Black Country, New Road (BCNR)
released their third album “Live at Bush Hall” – a collection of nine new songs that were,
as the title suggests, played at Bush Hall in London in December. The appeal of this
album, the reason why it is of so much intrigue (at least for me) is that these songs were
all written after former lead singer Isaac Wood left the band last year due to mental
health reasons, four days before the release of their Album “Ants From Up There”. With
bassist Tyler Hyde, pianist May Kershaw and saxophonist Lewis Evans taking over from
Wood as the respective singers for the songs, it is clear that BCNR has taken a new
direction – though not entirely.

One thing I found so interesting is that all the songs sound…fairly similar to their
last album. This is not a critique in any way – ‘Ant’s From Up There’ very quickly became
one of my personal favourites and is an album I constantly revisit so more of what that
album did for me is never bad. Why I find this interesting is that there was a conscious
decision from the band not to play any of their older songs in respect to Isaac’s
departure and how the lyrics were so closely tied to him (something I think is admirable –
too often do band’s swap out their members but keep their setlist the same, regardless
of the connection those previous songs may have to those former members).
Maintaining the tenets of their sound through these new vessels puts forward this
promise that the band really is trying to continue making music that suits what fans have
so deeply fallen in love with.

In anticipation of this album, I refrained from watching the live performance film
on YouTube which was uploaded last month (most of the reason I play for Spotify
Premium is so I get the higher sound quality which I can’t get with YouTube without
‘subscribing’ to another subscription service) however, I have since watched it and I felt it
added so much more to the song – the prom night aesthetic fits beautifully with the
disillusioned post-teen angst their songs often dip into (“she had Billie Eilish style” being
a memorable phrase from their last album). We then cut to the pizzeria, providing a
homely familiarity, complemented by the filmic – lo-fi cuts and digital zooms. The way the
film compliments the album perfectly and I couldn’t recommend it more to anyone
wishing to have a more sensory experience in listening to the album. The way it cuts to
different performances for each rendition of the song I felt especially helped make the
concerts seem more human and less polished, almost as if they picked the very best
renditions of their songs, there’s something so beautiful about seeing such an intimate
capturing of these performances, placing the audience at their expected eye level as well
as behind members, closed-in on their instruments and right below them: it all felt so much more artful than just someone in the crowd holding their phone or a camera above
people’s heads.

The songs themselves are nothing short of orchestral poetry in my opinion. With a
shorter track list than I was expecting and the basis of it being live performances, I feared
that this album might fall short when compared to their previous two albums however,
that fear turned out to be completely unjustified – as previously stated, the band manage
to recapture the essence of what they have done before and transfigured it into fitting to
what the respective songwriters wish to express – borrowing the evocation of Isaac and
channeling it through them to fit with how they play their instruments as they are used
to. The lyrics themselves are quite apparent to be about Isaac leaving which I think
slightly threw me – I was under the preconception that they would maybe try and refrain
from talking about his absence and how it has affected them but I should have known
better clearly, what with their other songs being so intrinsically personal! Tyler, Lewis and
May each respectively have such powerful voices: Tyler and May sound fairly similar and
as do Luke and Isaac so I cannot say with certainty (without going through all of their
songs and ensuring so)- but I do believe the three of them also provide backing vocals to
the band’s previous work, as well throughout this album.
So what do I think of the songs themselves? Well…

  1. Up Song: This song is a clear indication of how Isaac leaving the band impacted
    them all personally – the chorus being “Look at what we did together, BCNR
    friends forever” is an almost haunting chant put against a hyper drum beat and a
    melodic saxophone guiding its way through. This song is fairly short in comparison
    to the main body of Black Country, New Road’s work, clocking in at 3 minutes and
    forty seconds (not including the crowd cheering after the first song and Tyler
    greeting them which is included in the track) so when/if there is a studio recorded
    rendition of this song (or hopefully, the whole album), listeners can expect
    something more palatable, rather than the longer musical epics that occasionally
    feature in their albums (not that I don’t love The Place Where He Inserted The
    Blade). I am a firm believer that if you are listening to an album, you should do so
    in track order, no shuffling – that’s for playlists, and I think this song is a great way
    to begin the album and most definitely sets the tone. I think too, for those who
    are listening to this album already being fans of their previous work, this cements
    the precedent of how they are approaching making music after the changes made
    to their chemistry as a band: with bassist and now lead singer Tyler Hyde taking
    the reigns and adopting a very Isaac-Wood-esque approach to her vocals.
  2. The Boy – This song surprised me with how much I enjoyed it. Kershaw adopts a
    sort of Irish Folk song intonation in her singing, adhering perfectly to the
    fable-inspired lyrics. This song, in contrast to many others, isn’t all that busy when it comes to instruments and purposefully strips itself back which I think is perfect given that so much of the artistry in this track is found in how the song operates less like a piece of music and more so a piece of literature. Upon “Chapter 2”, the instruments start to get more intense in how they’re played, enunciating the orchestral treatment – Chapter 3 returns to the familiar rock-centric performance the band finds a home in before the absolutely beautiful refrain. One thing that captivated me about this band upon first listening to them is just how deep the lyrics can get and how at times, they are almost indecipherable metaphors – things that could only be assumed to relate to personal inside references that listeners would need to be “in the know” of – this song doesn’t exactly do that but that instead decides to play more to the idea of metaphor and storytelling – allowing the band, and particularly Kershaw, to flaunt their creative feathers and go slightly left field, all while maintaining their sensibility.
  1. I Won’t Always Love You – This song is clearly very human, written in a way that
    anyone can relate to, touching on the idea of the romanticisation of unconditional
    love and how relationships, romantic or otherwise, just aren’t like that. One thing
    I love is how the song eases itself into a climax: the start is so slow and quiet with
    very little going on in terms of instruments but as soon as the second verse hits,
    it’s like a symphony. Lyrically, this song is interesting – unlike their other songs
    (especially the one previous), this is a very explicit track with little reliance on
    metaphor or simile – Tyler decides to lay her heart down and let it all out and to
    me, that feels so much more fitting. It almost reads like dialogue (I’ll refrain from
    calling it Shakespearean but honestly, in a contemporary kind of way, it isn’t far
    off from being theatrical at the very least, especially with the ambience of this
    being a live performance!)
  2. Across the Pond Friend – This song has not left my mind since I first listened to the
    album, something about Lewis’ voice is intoxicating and saccharine. There’s
    another contrast here too between this track and the last: this is such an
    approachable love song that is steeped in optimism and affection where he
    reminisces about the titular “across the pond friend” which, I can only assume,
    refers to an American (I’m not sure who it is about specifically, it might not be
    about anyone that fans would know) – I adore the way Lewis constantly refers to
    American iconography and symbolism, seemingly all restricted to New-York: my
    favourite line being “I was doing it like May” to the tune of “My Way” by Frank
    Sinatra – May being his bandmate May Kershaw (in the film, we cut to a home
    video shot of her holding a glass up to the camera – I thought this was hilarious!) If
    one song is to reach “Chaos Space Marine” level esteem, I will put my chips on it
    being this one – at least for the sake of it being the most well-rounded of the nine.
  3. Laughing Song – Unsurprisingly for this band, there isn’t much to laugh about with
    this song – once more steeped in a very relatable existentialism. This song I feel is
    a real testament to the youth of today, the intro of the song even makes a

reference to COVID in how Tyler suggests she found it easier to laugh back when
she wasn’t wearing her mask (this might just be referring to a mask in the
metaphorical sense though which is probably more, likely, a reference to COVID
might be a bit too dated to put into song). This is another track however I feel is
more reflective of Isaac leaving the band – how Tyler “let the best person [she
knew] walk away”, her asking what that says about her and then going to list this
song as well as all the other ones on the albums besides “Across the Pond Friend”
and “The Boy”: the song is another demonstration of the album being more
centred around the band’s self-consciousness now that they have had to carry on
without one of their friends. I like to think the title is then meant to be a promise –
that if Isaac does return, they can laugh at this song as it actually becomes dated
like the probable COVID reference, that it will lose its sombre tone in irrelevancy.

  1. The Wrong Trousers – I’m pretty sure this is named after the Wallace and Gromit
    movie (they have another film reference in the film – the pizza shop segment is
    dubbed “I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts”) which I think is a nice stab at humour for the
    band first of all. The song itself seems to again reflect on Isaac, this time from the
    angle of how Isaac was integral to how the band grew as a collective and how,
    since he left, they have to pick up the pieces and carry on without him. I think this
    angle of talking about him as a musician and now not strictly as a friend is, oddly
    enough, very touching: it shows that even if the band fell out with him, they still
    held him in high regard artistically. Musically, this is another song that’s more
    driven by lyrics than it is instrumental and that works completely in the song’s
    favour, providing more of a poetic ballad atmosphere: Lewis is pouring his heart
    out as he reminisces. On the topic of Lewis as well, I think this song is the greatest
    example of his vocal talent – there’s something so alluring about his almost
    baritone pitch, his throaty pronunciation, and his harmonisation with the track – I
    think he resembles Isaac a lot in voice (that might just be down to accent though)
    and this sort of feels like he’s embodying his friend to talk about him – imitation is
    the highest form of flattery and what greater flattery is there than someone
    writing a song about you!
  2. Turbines/Pigs – This song came out a little left-field to what I associate with the
    Black Country, New Road sound, feeling a little more indie than what I typically
    associate their sound to be. And that’s just…so beautiful! I think this track works
    as a great way to really provide more contrast in the album – the high technicality
    of their sound is still present (though this is a very ‘May’ centric song with her
    dominating the majority of the song in both vocals and piano) as well as the lyrical
    content – it’s just the delivery that feels a little foreign but again, that only works
    to the benefit of the song and the album! This song is one of the longer ones,
    clocking at almost 10, nearly a fifth of the entire album, so naturally, this is a song
    for the instrumentalists out there who appreciate the orchestral side of the band;
    the last for minutes is purely just the band playing together, lead by the piano and

violin. This song, just like the other song May takes the lead vocals on, is more of a
fable, drawing from a line in the bible: “Don’t cast your pearls before swine”, as to
say not to give precious things (like memories) on those that won’t be able to
treasure them. In that sense, I feel this again may be an allusion to Isaac and the
rest of the band with May saying that she feels she wasn’t able to fully appreciate
the former years they had (the earlier line of “the bubble that you left then/I think
it’s safer than the cold” really drives this home more than anything, I think most
of the imagery of the song is more centred around the fable-like way that May
writes her songs to draw a narrative!)

  1. Dancers – Out of all the songs – I would say the eighth track ‘Dancers’ is currently
    my favourite – the moment I heard the chorus: the repeated line “Dancers stand
    very still on the stage”, I felt entranced! There’s something about Tyler’s voice
    that is so intoxicating; I’m not licensed in any sense of the word to talk about
    theory or technique with music, especially when it comes to singing, but her vocal
    range even to my untrained ears is just so impressive! The chorus I feel is another
    allusion to Isaac – Tyler describing her and her bandmates as the dancers, waiting
    to perform but not being able to without the man, the “elements”, that
    established their staple sound that are now “just gone”. I also love the second
    verse, the third-person address where Tyler sardonically critiques herself and the
    way she writes, suggesting that from an audience’s perspective, she gets bored of
    what she writes, as well-written as it may be. I think that further draws on the
    fallout of Isaac’s absence – Tyler taking on the role of the band’s front-person, she
    would feel critical of herself, perhaps comparing what she does to what Isaac did
    which led to the band’s critical success and artistic intrigue. She has big shoes to
    fill (and if you ask me, they fit perfectly, I honestly believe that she has so much
    promise and this song is only one piece of evidence that proves such a thing).
    There is no doubt in my mind as well that this is the peak of the album and is
    definitely a song I’d love to see further mastered and developed, see if there’s
    anything that the band may choose to additionally implement.
  2. Up Song (Reprise) – This is the last track of the album and simply returns to the
    first verse of the first song, providing a peculiarly wholesome bookend (as well as
    cementing the fact that this album really should be listened to chronologically if
    you choose to listen to it in its entirety). This is a little more stripped back and
    morose than the rendition of the first track – losing the bass riff and energetic
    barrage of instruments as Tyler sings, more acting as a denouement to the piece. I
    can imagine that if the band chooses to play this song live, it would have to be at
    the very end of their set (like it is here of course) which may slightly restrict it but
    at the same time, I really can’t fault it on that seeing as that seems to be the
    purpose of the reprised version.

In saying this, as a whole the album feels like the band is really trying to venture
out and explore how to diversify their sound: when I think of post-punk, I feel BCNR has
become one of my more immediate associations with how far they take the approach of
being more classical in their approach to composition – there are times where I felt its
more post-opera than post-punk! Black Country, New Road is a band for those who thirst
for music that can be dissected and explored, there’s definitely nothing “pop” about the
band but at the same time, I reject the notion that the band is pretentious or unpalatable
(I would equate it to the same thing as being a Nirvana fan in the 90s – it goes against the
grain but it’s not completely profound). If you are curious about maybe expanding your
horizons and seeing what the fuss around post-punk is (and you don’t want to listen to
The Smiths), I think this album is a good place to start.
In watching the film and listening to the album, I feel inspired too as an artist, a filmmaker, and a musician – my eyes have truly been opened to what i could be capable of:

  • it’s vital to note that the members of Black Country, New Road are not much older than
    I am (though they probably have years more experience and discipline than I do for
    certain) – the nature of their music is not entirely foreign to the listener and though it may
    be difficult to recreate their songs (I don’t know many people that can play violin, flute or
    even drums) or what makes them great, it isn’t difficult to be inspired by the way they
    approach art. They make songs about how they feel, something so innate and expected
    from the artists, they made a film and “set pieces” themselves with the help of their
    family and friends – there is an indistinguishable air of DIY that intertwines itself with how
    BCNR set out to make their music, ironic for a band that holds itself up on foundations of
    orchestral sound. This may be high praise to some but this is on the same level of beauty
    for me as Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged show – the energy and raw ability shining through
    over any mastered production (I make this point also in part because YouTube suggested
    it to me after finishing the concert film).
    I haven’t yet talked about the shortcomings of the album, mostly as I feel these
    would just be nitpicking: I wish a couple of the songs were longer, maybe played around
    more with sound and maybe even explored a little more outside what they have
    previously made but in saying this, I don’t really feel like I’m owed any of that, that the
    album would be any better had it leaned more towards the small preferences of mine.
    I’m fairly easy to win over, for me to suggest this album is completely perfect may not be
    the most objective of reviews, but I will re-emphasise, my expectations were greatly
    surpassed. I feel it’s unfair to the band, both current members and Isaac, to accredit the
    album’s accomplishments in my eyes solely to how it addresses his departure. I want to
    clarify as well that even if I had no clue Isaac left, if Isacc was still a member and sang
    these songs, or if I was looking at this album completely neutrally with no real
    connection to the band, I’d still find it to be a great compilation of songs. I hope that
    anyone who feels obliged to listen to it after reading what I’ve had to say can at least

relate to that: even if you don’t really care for the dichotomy of the band, their history or
any of their previous songs – I think admiring the abilities of all these young people, how
they play around with sound and with the setting, is something everyone can admire.
So what’s so special about this band really? Why am I so adamant about
recommending this album? I think that’s quite simple – it’s a great album and it deserves
more attention, even if it’s just a concert album which is bound to have its respective
tracks re-recorded and remastered soon. Beyond that though, I will emphasise that there
is a rawness in this album that I think is otherwise unseen in a lot of what i have listened
to recently. That is almost entirely because I know the context and history behind the
band and what these songs focus on – maybe if I cared more about more mainstream
celebrity drama I’d find myself saying the same for every song – but I feel like regardless
of that, I feel like this album, with each individual track, was continuously satisfied in a
completely new way. The album has a consistent theme, a consistent sound, and a
consistent aesthetic: everything is consistent, and yet I felt like it was entirely unique.
With each new line sung and each new chord played I felt like my conception of the band
was growing, and developing. I don’t know what BCNR is really, they’re a ban and the
internet tells me they’re experimental rock, post-punk, alternative – I don’t know. What I
do know is I like whatever “it” is, Live at Bush Hall is an album I like, Black Country, New
Road is a band I like.

Article by Shadman Rahman

Cover Photo by Samantha Weisberg via Unsplashed