Black Midi ‘Schlagenheim’ – Review

29 Jun

Earlier this week I saw Black Midi perform in Nottingham. Lead singer and guitarist, the perfectly named Geordie Greer, instantly made a mark. He came out donning various items of fashion antiquity – a cowboy hat, trench coat, cropped trousers and brogue boots – with the stone cold stare of a man who had absolutely no idea where he was or what he was about to do. At no point did he engage the crowd in conversation. At no point did he even seem to notice we were there. From the very first note onwards he was possessed by the music; as strangely enigmatic as any frontman in recent memory. His voice – somewhere between Su Tissue, Yoko Ono, a cockney Mark E Smith and a deeply distressed Jack Russel dog – didn’t sound tethered to a source; it lunged, screeched and bellowed of its own alien volition. Alongside him, his band mates were equally engrossed in the music, and each other. It was a mesmerising performance of complicated indie-rock, shaved of any kind of melodic or structural accessibility.

Little of that live energy and inscrutability has been bottled on the album, ‘Schlagenheim’, which is a far more calculated and slowly rewarding entity. It’s been produced by Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Mystery Jets) and I really mean produced. It’s unique In the same way that listening to ‘Unknown Pleasures’ was a different experience to seeing Joy Division live, in person. You get the strong impression that every sound, every guitar pedal effect and synthesised after-thought has been slaved over and meticulously mixed just so. 

‘Schlagenheim’ bristles with a restlessness, never settling on a groove or melody for very long. The unpredictability and unknowingness extends to all aspects of the band’s aesthetic, from the album title (which is untranslatable) to the album design (it comes packaged in an old slimline CD single case with the lyric booklet glued on to the outter case. Cassette tapes are available). In official press photos the band appear as computer generated avatars dressed in matching racing overalls, like playable characters from Gran Turesmo on the original PlayStation. They avoid social media and until recently wouldn’t grant interview to the music press. This isn’t a ploy as such – they just prefer to let the music speak for itself. 

The most striking thing about the group is undoubtedly Morgan Simpson, the finest drummer of his generation, with the awards to prove it. You won’t find flashy Travis Barker-esque tomfoolery from him though. His drumming is a highlight but it’s rarely the focus point. His dramatic fills on new single ‘Talking Heads’ are notable but that song didn’t even make it to the album’s final cut. That it’s their catchiest song (indeed it’s about the only thing they’ve recorded without an actual chorus) doesn’t seem to have been an issue. Black Midi, despite the enormous amount of individual talent on display, operate and behave as a band. No one member shines above another on this album. And it is very much an album rather than a disparate collection of songs. It starts bracingly with ‘953’, a dramatic post-hardcore number which stops, starts and turns on a dime, and slowly unfolds, climaxing with melodic epics like ‘Western’, which features some impressive banjo playing, and ‘Ducter’, the album’s untroubled standout. It encompasses Math-Rock, Post-Rock, Ambience, Indie and even Nu-Metal, and somehow meshes it altogether in to a unifying whole.

In a sense the band are a throwback to when people took rock music seriously. There is a steadfast pretension that is rare in 2019. The most successful (and currently best) band in the country, The 1975, squeeze irony out of every inch of their music. Not so with Black Midi. But despite being very-modern in a musical sense, Black Midi present as a traditionally set up guitar band and play every note as if their lives depended on it, as if ‘Schlagenheim’ could save the world or change your life. If there is humour in here (and a band that include lyrics about caterpillars with anorexic children and lovers with porcupine hands are not totally devoid of the stuff) then it’s buried quite deep. And it’s that true sincerity, more than anything actually contained in the music or lyrics, that dead stared intensity, that makes Black Midi so inspirational and appealing.

8.5/10

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