‘An astonishingly mature debut’ – Black Midi: Schlagenheim, review

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ - Aidan Riddell reviews the debut album from the London-based experimental rock outfit

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Little is known about Black Midi. Despite snowballing to considerable notoriety in the UK’s live scene last year, through a string of acclaimed gigs in pubs and clubs across the country, the band have remained decidedly hushed, opting for little in the way of social media presence or interviews before the spring of this year. This approach was reinforced further by a lack of studio material, with the band’s Spotify page staying barren until the release of their first commercial single 3 months ago. This ethos is reflected in their debut album. ‘Schlagenheim‘ is a storm of complex math rock compositions and cryptic lyricism delivering awe and bafflement in equal measure; an record whose elusiveness is a key selling point.

The record opens with the fidgety yet calculated wails of Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s guitar, met by the frantic whacks of drummer Morgan Simpson and the deep grooves of Cameron Picton’s bass. These waves of thrashy riffing continually build and crash in on themselves at a blistering pace, before giving way to a sole acoustic guitar, accompanied by Geordie Greep’s warbling vocals, reminiscent of Talking Heads’ David Byrne (think Born Under Punches). This back and forth continues until the track’s chaotic end, a collapse into sheer noisy catharsis that borders on the excesses of jazz rock, with schizophrenic pianos thrown into the mix.

‘Speedway’, a much lighter and funkier affair, features more hidden depth than meets the eye. Though the lead vocals appear the most calm and lucid on the entire album, there is something unnerving about Greep’s rambling interlocking with the skittering hi-hats and the repetition of the syncopated lead guitar (a homage to Pere Ubu’s 30 Seconds Over Tokyo). Reggae swells from a low-key opening to a full blown post-hardcore freakout, incorporating some of the most dynamic percussion on the record. While not one of the more memorable tracks – the intro handling the sort of construction and deconstruction seen on the track more impressively – the contrast between the vocals and chunky bassline makes for a unique and worthwhile addition.

Photo by Dan Kendall, courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

‘Near DT, MI‘ sees the subject matter turns political, as the songwriting takes a rare detour into the realm of the literal. Frustration at the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan manifests in the form of a series of defiant protest chants, screamed over a face-melting instrumental, proving that the band can opt for immediacy and straightforwardness when they want to. As the shortest track on the album, ‘Near DT’ is a necessary shot of adrenaline before the band embarks on more ambitious ideas.

‘Western’ and ‘Of Schlagenheim’ comprise a 1-2 punch of lengthier tracks where the band employ more abstract song structures; the former sees Greep break out his acoustic guitar once again in an introduction that wouldn’t sound out of place on an American Football song. This track has far too many nooks and crannies to cover, but when this esoteric account of a fairy-tale odyssey (think Dr Seuss meets Slint) draws to a close, the result is as satisfying as it is mystifying. The latter has the accolade of being perhaps the weirdest song so far; here, the band create a darker, more synth-y backdrop and bring more no-wave elements into the fold. As the track progresses, the songwriting becomes even more impenetrable, as the lead vocals deteriorate into frenzied shrieks. The bipolar instrumental swings focus between airy lead guitars and the fuzzy snarls of Picton’s bass, with a side of jazzy improvised drumming from Simpson.

‘Ducter’, while lyrically vague, manages to be a grand, empowering, and anthemic closer. What starts as a simple guitar melody soon becomes a roaring wall of sound and once more the band begins a cycle of creation and destruction, each iteration becoming faster and more complex. Greep’s triumphant refrain, “he could not break me”, and Kelvin’s swirling guitars provide an emotional and instrumental crescendo, as a curtain of noise closes over the listener, bringing the band’s maiden voyage to its riotous end.

It has been argued by some that the band struggle, at times, to stay afloat in their sea of influences, be they post-punk, math rock, or no-wave. However, this is not the culmination of decades of musical experimentation, but rather a portrait of young, impressionable musicians who are trying to find their place in the musical landscape. If this Black Midi in their least experienced, most crude form, I can’t help but imagine where they’ll be in 5 years’ time. To suggest that what they are doing on this record is no more than a hollow imitation of the experimental post-punk of Pere Ubu or the math-y post-hardcore of Slint is needlessly cynical. It is one thing to boldly wear one’s influences on one’s sleeve, riffing on and progressing further and another to mawkishly impersonate them. Black Midi tend strongly toward the former.

If criticism is to be had, it’s that ‘Schlagenheim’ doesn’t fully deliver on the lofty promises of the band’s more high-profile live performances, such as KEXP performance. Greep’s unhinged vocals and Simpson’s freeform drumming are more enjoyable the less inhibited they are. Though it is true that not every great live band can be a great studio band, and vice versa, I hope that we will hear greater mastery of the studio environment in the band’s future releases.

Despite this, ‘Schlagenheim’ amounts to an astonishingly mature debut for such a young band. I am certain that the best is yet to come for this elusive and shadowy outfit; they are sure to contribute greatly to the continued health of Britain’s underground scene in the coming years.

‘Schlagenheim’ is out now via Rough Trade.

By Aidan Riddell