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.

RAT­ING: 3.5÷5

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.

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