As the world tries to find ways of going forward, so long-established events like the Edinburgh International Festival have come up with new ways of putting on events. Last year, the world’s biggest arts festival was cancelled (it must be said that whatever programme events may be under, in a relatively small city things do merge, in this case the international Festival and the concurrent ‘fringe’ which is actually way bigger). This year not only are events being staged again, but they are being put on in different venues. The festivals have been accused of not always benefitting all geographical areas of Edinburgh (not an entirely unreasonable accusation, it must be said), so it comes that in a temporary venue, we find ourselves, socially distanced and seated, in a business park on the west side of the city.
Black Country, New Road formed in London in 2018, and released their first two singles ‘Athens, France‘ and ‘Sunglasses‘ the following year. The seven-piece released their debut For The First Time this year on the hip Ninja Tune label, and saw it debut at no.4 in the UK album charts. No mean feat for any debut, and all the more impressive given the state of the world. It’s not been a great eighteen months to try and get word out about your band, and for many, this is the first time to see the band in the flesh.
The gig opens, as the album does, with ‘Instrumental.’ Given that we’re all seated, many seem to want to get up and dance, but we remain resolutely still. The band, for their part, acknowledge the audience, but are not interested in conventional rock behaviour. When a wag at one point yells ‘You gonna say hello, then?‘ singer and guitarist Isaac Wood simply replies ‘No,’ and that’s the only words we hear from the band all gig. Written down, this may come across as the band being aloof and distant. the reality is that it seems they don’t feel the need to engage in that sort of interaction.
I’ve written before about how I cringe when new acts write to me saying ‘our music is really hard to categorise’ because it usually means it is all too easy to do so, and what follows is horrendously bland. I’ve enjoyed the album, and I’m still trying to put my finger on what it is exactly that BC, NR do. They certainly do it well – but as the sky darkens and it creeps into the tent, I find later that I’ve written down Can, Stooges, Slint. I’m also hearing bits of prog, bits of math rock and post-rock, maybe even a smattering of jazz. Is it that they defy categorisation or that they tick many boxes?
They manage to avoid seeming self-indulgent, which is no mean feat for a band that are this experimental. It’s thought out, without descending into pseudo-intellectualism. While I can’t always hear Isaac’s vocals as well as I would like, I’m particularly impressed by the way Lewis Evans on saxophone and Georgia Ellery on violin play off against each other, given their instruments are not necessarily natural bedfellows. And I really love ‘Opus‘ which sounds even better than it does on record, deeply hypnotic.
The album’s great, and this shows that they can cut it live. What will be interesting is to see how they develop. stretching themselves without losing what makes them so damn intriguing at the moment. I’ll be watching and waiting. You should be, too.