FEATURE: The Curious Case of black midi: Are They the Most Divisive Band of the Year?




The Curious Case of black midi

PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Topete 

Are They the Most Divisive Band of the Year?


THERE are acts that come along that seem…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Kendall

to split opinion. I do think this year has been synonymous with solo artists – as have the past few years - but there are a couple of great bands emerging. One that has seemingly sprung from nowhere are black midi. Aside from the fact they stylise their name in lower-case lettering (which always bugs me!), there is not a lot out there about them. As you will see from this feature, they do not have many great photos and you feel they are one of these acts that feel the music can take care of itself – without the real need to put much out there in the way of visuals. In any case, this feature stems from an interaction I saw on Twitter after black midi performed for Steve Lamacq on BBC Radio 6 Music. The band were given free reign to do what they wanted in their set and, for all accounts, it was a pretty unleashed and freestylin’ performance. The guys let it all loose and, whilst that seemed to appeal to those who like their music unpredictable and free, some found the performance lacking in any focus and a bit tough on the ears. I shall not name the person who raised the point regarding their hype but it made me think whether, with the media showing them a lot of attention, are they a band that will struggle to fulfill their potential? There is definitely a lot of buzz around them right now – and I shall bring out some relevant articles.

To be fair, there are photos in these pieces but, if you look at black midi’s social media pages, it is a bit photo-lite. Anyway, CRACK is full of love for the band:  

 “Fast forward to 2019, and the group are on every hype-chaser’s hitlist. Under the name Black Midi, they’ve been talked about in not-so-hushed tones as one of the country’s most exciting new bands. An indefinable group, pushing guitar music into strange, hypnotic territory. Not that the four of them care much for the hyperbole – today they’re far more concerned about my bowling skills.

It almost seems incongruous that this ragtag, calamitous bunch (completed by guitarist Matt Kelvin) could be producing some of the UK’s most cerebral new music. Their sound calls to mind everything from Battles, to Anna Meredith and This Heat. As it turns out, though, Black Midi’s music might not be as meticulously constructed as it may sound. “It’s weird,” says Geordie. “It’s not like we were like, ‘Ooh, we all like this crazy music’. It’s just that we were friends, innit,” he shrugs, as if any group of schoolkids would come up with these sounds on a whim. “We didn’t set out to make this music; it’s just the music that came out,” agrees Cameron”.

The band are relatively new to the interview game so, in terms of revelation and depth, I think it is still a learning process for them. In any case, vocalist Geordie Greep has been speaking with various peeps as the band’s album, schlagenheim, is out now.

Loud and Quiet caught up with the band and made some interesting points regarding their gig style:

It’s the same story when you see the band live: audience interaction is kept to a minimum while the group seem much more at ease communicating simply with each other. It’s all part of their musical chemistry, and their live shows feel like the product of a highly intuitive hive mind where individuality is not important. The focus is on each member’s contribution to perfectly executing the group’s bastard musical hybrid of clanging math-rock, visceral noise and frantic post-punk in the best way possible. At times it has a real sense of humour. At others it’s exhilarating. Sometimes it’s just bloody good fun. But Black Midi are deadly serious about their art and Greep constantly refers to the idea of ‘progression’.

Piercing, demonic and often operating as another jarring layer rather than a narrative Centre point, Greep is a volatile force at the helm of Black Midi; where everything else feels calculated. He feels like a feral dog ticking and scratching. Behind him, a razor sharp rhythm section keeps everything moving along with a steady immediacy. Morgan Simpson’s improvised drum fills are “the key” to the band’s regimented stomp, whilst Greep and Kelvin’s guitars constantly sound like a hexen battle cry. Live, they are an absolute unit, a singular power that is unlike any other currently playing in a pub near you.

Black Midi’s music is an enigma, but for the most part the group are very much shy and unassuming. They might be the talk of the town, but their introverted minds are elsewhere. “We’re not wild guys,” Greep mutters, “we really don’t go out partying.” Quite. Greep is visibly disinterested by talk of hedonism, but his face lights up when he finds out that I share his passion for composer Meredith Monk”.

In this recent interview with Sterogum, it seems like the attention courting black midi comes as a surprise to them – according to Cameron Picton and Geordie Greep:

Being able to identify the incremental steps that led to this point, the members of Black Midi are more prone to characterize their growth as “a slow burn.” They are, mostly, nonplussed about the attention upon them so far; they are also likely to casually downplay some of the mythologizing that’s already occurred with them, such as the idea that they were this mysterious London entity intentionally maintaining total obscurity on the web. “It was exaggerated a bit to fit the narrative,” Picton argues.

At the same time, when I ask if they bristle at being described as some kind of shadowy art collective, Greep grins slyly and responds: “There are worse things to be described as”.

Before moving on, this review of schlagenheim from The Guardian highlights some aspects that might put off some from dipping their toes in the sea of black midi:

At their least appealing, there’s no doubt that Black Midi can sound pretty pleased with themselves. Bmbmbm features a one-note bass riff interspersed with propulsive explosions of noise, over which Greep offers variations on the phrase “She moves with a purpose” in a succession of different voices, from drawl to gibber. It’s the kind of idea that Damo Suzuki-era Can might have fruitfully explored – indeed, the band have backed him in concert – and bears a certain resemblance to the early Butthole Surfers track Something, although you struggle to locate any of Can’s warmth, wit, funk or soul here, or the Butthole Surfers’ lysergically enhanced sense of fear and loathing. Or, indeed, what the track is supposed to be communicating. Without any of that, it’s hard to avoid a sensation of po-faced seriousness, of music that exists largely in order to make its authors and fans feel superior to the hoi-polloi with their risible dependence on melodies and lyrics.

PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Topete 

It’s a failing, but it’s far from the whole story. The early hype around the band has come replete with a lot of Emerson, Lake & Palmer-ish stuff about their technical virtuosity and dexterous musicianship. This occasionally finds its expression in showily complex flurries of widdly-woo guitar, but it comes into its own when, led by drummer Morgan Simpson, they lock into a groove that manages to be hypnotically repetitious while constantly shifting and changing, as on opener 953 – a riff that initially sounds like the needle on a grunge record sticking, subject to a succession of shifts in tempo and style – or Western, which boasts a vaguely country influence in its circular guitar pattern. There are a succession of moments where the striking juxtapositions deliver a really powerful kick, like a film cutting sharply between contrasting scenes: Of Schlagenheim suddenly divests itself of its angularity and becomes a gently beguiling drift two minutes in; Years Ago shifts from motorik pulse to screaming noise and back again”.

When people want to praise black midi – as many have – there is this effusiveness and sense of a band breaking rules and not following formulas. It is clear they have a way about them and, despite the fact they are BRIT School alumni, they are definitely not your commercial act trying to sound like Adele! Personally, I am sort of split between applauding their sense of experimentation and bringing something fresh to the world but, at the same time, their live performances and style is not for me; on their debut album, a lot of the songs do take you aback and it is hard to get on board.

Maybe it is a slow burn regarding black midi: special artists do take a while to fully embed and it might be a case of giving the music time. It is clear black midi are exciting and are taking guitar music to new heights but I wonder, at a time where we have aggressive bands like Shame and IDLES doing their thing, whether there is a bit too much anger. I love what black midi stand for but I have heard comments from people regarding their ‘noise’ rather than the music. The songs are clever, for sure, but there is an awful lot to take in. Going back to that discussion around the Steve Lamacq live set and I have to agree that it was less a case of brilliant unpredictability; more a sense of a band let off the chain and not able to reign it in. Although their music has captured the hearts of many, I don’t think they have the same appeal and broadness as, say, IDLES or a band like that. I know most artists will have detractors but there is a definite split when it comes to black midi. You either love what they are doing and congratulate their less-than-orthodox approach or you find their music a little too scattered, pretentious and hard-going. For sure, these are early days and the band will grow and evolve but I think the attention they are getting is likely to face some resistance.

They are, I feel, the most divisive band of 2019 but, maybe, that is not a bad thing. The media passion and fanbase they have is clear but I also like the fact they are challenging and a bit out-there. If they toss in a chaotic live performance once in a while then that does at least stand them out from the pack. So many artists are rigid and overly-rehearsed and it can lead to somewhat stale songs and live performances. To their credit, black midi like to have a bit of room to manoeuvre and catch you by surprise. Those that do not like black midi will look at their new album and see that some songs run on and on – what if they had trimmed them and showed a bit more economy in the studio? They will also highlight that schlagenheim’s tracklisting and programming is not the best and the contrast between the ‘tighter’ songs and the meandering ones is hard to absorb. The Line of Best Fit , when they reviewed schlagenheim, summed the band up pretty neatly:

Put simply, not a lot about black midi makes sense in isolation, as ‘sense’ is an idea they toy with, scramble and reconfigure into the air of mystery that runs throughout the entire project. If bands like Can or The Residents or Public Image Ltd only existed on paper, you would imagine that they’d sound a lot like black midi (and vice versa), but it is only through direct experience with the songs that make up this exceptional album that we realise that there are some things (including track names) that are best left unsaid, virginally awaiting the experience of the listener.

And with that, there’s just nothing more to say. Listen or don’t, black midi will happen either way”.

PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Kendall 

It is clear black midi are not trying to please everyone and it is their sense of the unexpected that is causing this division – albeit it, a very interesting one! I am not their biggest fan but I can understand those who are worried by all the attention and whether the media are going a bit too full-on in their praise. They are original, for sure, but does the music stand up after repeated listens and will we be talking about them in years to come? Also, in a year where there is a lot of heavy and striking music, are they offering us more squall and volume as opposed truth, inspiration and depth? Those who adore them will counter with the argument (black midi) are taking risks and who wants them to sound like everyone else? It is their natural boldness and instinct that is getting people revved and stirred. I like the lads’ quirks and fire; I do like the fact they are breaking new ground and have released one of the most talked-about records of the year. Even though they are not 100% my cup of tea, they might well win me over yet. Looking online and it is clear there are plenty who do not ‘get’ black midi and would rather they were a bit more accessible, restrained and tight. That is a fair criticism and one can respect that opinion. Black midi have definitely divided opinion and have their detractors and against the tide of praise and hyperbole, there are many who are raising eyebrows and turning up their noses. The band are messy and intelligent; they are freewheelin’ and in-control and, as these contrasts show, black midi are…

DEFINITELY not boring!