The Lowdown: The mythos of black midi feels like something from a generation past. Four young Londoners fresh out of high school — lead vocalist/guitarist Geordie Greep, guitarist/vocalist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, bassist/vocalist Cameron Picton, and drummer Morgan Simpson — start playing music together. Single riffs are born of multi-hour jam sessions. A one-off gig leads to a residency at Brixton’s Windmill and news of the extremely fresh, intensely bombastic band travels like wildfire on the tongues of locals. Demand for information on the band surges beyond the digitally available supply seemingly overnight. Offhand theories arise about the shadowy artist collective who possess great technical skill and interact minimally with the audience while performing.
Just over one year ago, the meteoric rise (all things are relative) of black midi seemed a meticulously crafted venture, calculated and controlled and, in a way, fantastic. As it turns out, though, much of their enigma may have been accidental. If there wasn’t much information available, it’s because the band was just getting started. Almost every feature on the band plays up its members’ shyness, or at least their collectively subdued nature, especially as a means of explaining their purportedly mysterious stage presence. Explaining their lack of online presence in an interview with Crack magazine, Picton said, “People cottoned on quite quickly, and we didn’t have much money.” In a way, this unintentionality only makes their reputation that much more impressive.
Now, after signing to Rough Trade and getting their PR in line, the noisy post-punk math-rock genre-fluid outfit arrives with their debut LP, Schlagenheim.
The Good: Schlagenheim is in turns explosive and subdued (mostly explosive), an energetic, challenging listen start to finish. That improvisation lies at the heart of the group’s songwriting is apparent in the best way possible, their precise chemistry perhaps the most clearly traceable line through the math rock of “953”, railing post-punk of “Near DT, MI”, stop-and-start drone of “bmbmbm”, and more relaxed portions of “Western” and “Of Schlagenheim”. Greep’s dynamic vocals regularly earn center stage, ranging from a nasal wail to something somehow more akin to the whisper of The Antlers’ Peter Silberman (these whispered bits are admittedly less common). What makes the songs of Schlagenheim, and perhaps black midi as a whole, great rather than good, though, is Simpson’s airtight percussion, his complete control of the kit evident throughout every last one of the album’s 43 minutes.
Unlike many young bands, black midi’s lyricism is not outpaced by its members’ abilities on their respective instruments. Over the orchestrated chaos of sometimes chunky, sometimes razor-sharp guitars, surprisingly agile bass, and syncopated percussion, Greep howls all sorts of madness. That madness boils down to a careful balance of emotion, cynicism, and social commentary without ever feeling forced or overly pretentious. During portions of “bmbmbm”, it’s not hard to imagine Greep writhing, eyes clenched shut, physically overcome as he moans, in this case, about a woman who moves with a “magnificent purpose.”
Schlagenheim’s shortest cut, “Near DT, MI”, is the purest distillation of black midi’s capabilities. After a noisy math-rock opening, the song rebuilds from nothing, saturated with tension, until, this time, Picton sings, “They’re finding the water/ They’re fixing the water/ What’s in the water?/ Here in the water?/ And I see you hide.” The band explodes and Picton’s vocals, imbued with a new urgency, become less easy to parse, but at least some of what he says is unmistakable. “There’s lead in the water/ And you think that I’m fine?” he shouts, “Are you losing your mind?/ Dead in the water”, an unexpected and genuine, scathing indictment of the Flint water crisis from all the way across the pond.
The Bad: While it makes for an interesting listen that songs on Schlagenheim vary pretty uniformly in length from two and a half minutes to eight, the purposefulness that suffuses shorter tracks like “Near DT, MI” and “Reggae” make you wonder what “Western” could sound like if it were about half as long. This isn’t a criticism of long songs writ large, but the best of black midi here is when their efforts, and sound, are concentrated into a forceful, jagged wall of sound. At times, they seem to meander off.
The Verdict: The dissolution of black midi’s mystique over the course of the last year, as they transition from being gems of the London underground to subjects of international (if somewhat niche) interest, has revealed four intensely passionate musicians with a unified desire to push their craft into something unexplored. There is a sort of pure, youthful exuberance to what black midi are making, but their experimentation also carries with it a sense of mission. In an interview with Pitchfork, Greep lays down the band’s personal ultimatum: “If we kept on doing the same stuff, we’d quit the band”.
black midi regularly claim that their music will sound completely different in two years. We’ll see if they live up to that promise, but for now I would be just fine with more of the same.
Essential Tracks: “Reggae”, “Near DT, MI”, and “bmbmbm”