black midi’s Schlagenheim busts open the post-rock template
Review: The young London band’s vocals sometimes feel like an afterthought, but their innovative approach to playing justifies a lot of the hype.
In an attention-grabbing live video recorded by Seattle radio station KEXP in 2018, black midi look like a gaggle of schoolkids possessed with the confidence of seasoned pros. It’s not that what the London quartet are doing is especially difficult – they like to switch up their time signatures and tempos, but for the most part, they play with a recognisable post-hardcore palette. It’s that they seem more tuned into each other than most bands twice their age. Geordie Greep and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s raucous guitar lines knit together seamlessly. Drummer Morgan Simpson runs a tight ship through stormy waters, thrashing his kit with joyful intensity, while bassist Cameron Picton can ripple through rocky arpeggios as easily as he hangs back in the pocket. The band is tight, but not so tight that no one has fun.
Despite the apparently spontaneous spirit of their jamming, for their debut LP Schlagenheim, black midi opted not to merely switch on a tape recorder while they did their thing in a room together. They’ve earned acclaim for their raw live sound, but they enlisted producer Dan Carey – who’s worked with pop leviathans like Sia and Kylie Minogue as well as post-punk inspired indie acts like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party. Carey’s fleshed out black midi’s sound slightly, adding flourishes such as synthesisers and choral background vocals. On the standalone single talking heads, released this past spring, black midi sound like another scrappy rock band. On Schlagenheim, they’re experimentally-minded players with a desire to push at the edges of what the word “rock” usually connotes.
While talking heads doesn’t appear on Schlagenheim, the eponymous band’s influence sure does; on near DT,MI, a song ostensibly about the toxic water supply in the Michigan town of Flint, Kwasniewski-Kelvin repeats the words “the water” which brings to mind David Byrne on Talking Heads’ 1982 single Once in a Lifetime. On other songs, Greep’s elastic delivery occasionally bites Joe Newman of Alt‑J, in that he sounds a bit like he’s gargling Nickelodeon-green slime. In a band that lacks the arch, ironic stance of transatlantic ensemble Ought, the deranged screech of Irish rockers Girl Band, or the overt theatricality of Danish punks Iceage, Greep’s warbly mouth sounds can miss their target. He’s said he goes for silly in an attempt to sidestep the macho expectations levied on all-boy rock groups, but his caterwaul occasionally detracts from black midi’s instrumental wallop. When he insists “you could not break me/you’ll never break me” on album closer Ducter and then immediately splinters off into a falsetto yodel, it’s hard to take his defiance to heart.
If Greep occasionally feels like an unserious narrator in Schlagenheim’s paranoid stew, the record’s high points make up for his occasionally aimless vocals. The taut, ferocious Years Ago veers wildly between distorted screams and soft choral touches – a thrilling switch-up. The queasy lurch of bmbmbm – initially released as the band’s first single in 2018 – sees them enjoying a rare steady groove as distant squealing vocals conjure mounting anxiety. They’re hardly the first band to counter post-industrial ennui with dark and furious downstrokes, but black midi take their lineage seriously, and they further it with flair.