About once per decade, there is a familiar movement in popular music — a wave of fresh-faced young men from the UK descend, wielding guitars like swords with the expressed purpose of slaying all dragons who threaten rock music here in America.
This happened of course with The Beatles and The Stones and the other British Invasion bands of the ’60s. Then there was punk in the ’70s, The Smiths in the ’80s, Oasis in the ’90s, and The Libertines in the ’00s. No matter the passage of time, these bands tend to be remarkably similar. Shaggy hair? Check! Rickenbacker guitars? Check! A certain boyish insouciance that’s meant to be rebellious but ultimately comes off as kinda cute? Check!
Into this continuum steps Black Midi, a buzzy British outfit that’s emerged just in time keep the “lad guitar-band” trend alive in the 2010s. Superficially, Black Midi hits on all the usual bases. The band members are absurdly young — the fabulously monikered frontman, Geordie Greep, is just 19, as is bassist Cameron Picton. (The other two guys, guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin and drummer Morgan Simpson, are the relative oldsters in the band — they’re both 20.) Given their age, it’s not surprise that Black Midi’s roots aren’t terribly deep — the band evolved out of jam sessions that Greep initiated separately in 2015 with Kwasniewski-Kelvin and the bracingly talented Simpson, a kinetic timekeeper who already seems like he’s without peer in the contemporary indie-rock scene. Most modern indie bands, frankly, have mediocre drummers — it’s more apt to compare Simpson to stars of the prog and fusion scenes of the ’70s, like Bill Bruford and Tony Williams, than anyone his own age.
All of them were students at London performing arts academy The BRIT School, though Black Midi soon developed into something more important than a mere after-school diversion. By 2018, they were becoming a mini-sensation in underground rock circles thanks to twisty-turny singles like “Bmbmbm” that spotlighted the band’s nervy musicianship and penchant for free-form improvisation, as well as Greep’s wholly unique vocals. Music critics no doubt will struggle to assemble the right combination of adjectives, verbs, and proper nouns that conveys his talky, extraterrestrial yelp. Here’s my best attempt: He sounds like Jack White holding in a sneeze.
In case it’s not already apparent, Black Midi’s resemblance to the British rock saviors of the past starts to break down once you get past their press photos and the details of their Wikipedia entry. The band will no doubt be classified as post-punk by most music writers. (Recently, while describing Black Midi to a friend, I said they were like Parquet Courts if they were an indie-jam band.) But the generic “post-punk” signifier doesn’t really do Black Midi justice. So much of what informs their squawking, deconstructionist, and frequently unclassifiable music actually predates punk — Miles Davis, King Crimson, krautrock, avant-garde classical composers like Stravinsky and Bartok, even the Grateful Dead.
And then there’s the matter of hype. Lad bands tend to cultivate it like they do their wardrobes of baggy shorts. But Black Midi, until now anyway, has largely avoided the mainstream press. I heard about them via word of mouth long before I ever read about them. A riveting live performance recorded late last year in Iceland and posted by the Seattle radio station KEXP added to the band’s stateside reputation, making them a mainstay of indie message boards and text chains. (That KEXP performance has been streamed about 300,000 times on YouTube — those are positively blockbuster numbers for an indie band playing a set of what were at the time mostly untitled songs.)
There’s not really a modern rubric for appreciating this band. It’s not cool these days to stare at a drummer and marvel at his chops, man. And yet the instrumental dexterity these kids exhibit make them visceral in a way that so few young indie bands are right now.
Black Midi’s debut album, Schlagenheim — the title is a nonsense word that Greep made up, which suits the music — pretty much preserves what makes them so thrilling as a live act, while also inadvertently spotlighting some of the band’s weaknesses. Veteran English rock producer Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, Bat For Lashes) apparently opted to mostly stay out of the way, shepherding Black Midi through a brief but intense five-day recording session. You would get out of the way, too, if faced with furious rampagers like “953,” in which the guitars replicate the sound of shrapnel colliding with concrete after a car crash, and the glowering and hilariously mistitled “Reggae,” where Greep manages to rhyme “mountain range” with “the rotting flesh of mange.”
Schlagenheim is most exciting when you feel as if you’re listening in on the band discovering in the moment something vital, unusual and even a little terrifying. (Black Midi essentially assembles songs from hours and hours of jams.) The album’s meandering eight-minute centerpiece “Western” is a spacey jam that teeters on the brink of chaos without ever quite going there, riding a looping groove that evokes both In A Silent Way and “Dark Star.” Greep, as always, gives it a sinister edge: “After all the pretty things you’d done for me, I left you in a ditch.”
These songs, I’m sure, all slay live. (I look forward to finding out in person during Black Midi’s upcoming American tour.) As an advertisement for Black Midi’s instrumental prowess, Schlagenheim is highly effective. As a collection of songs, however, it’s somewhat lacking. While I’m continually knocked out by moments — the malevolent snarl of Greep’s voice, or the pulverizing power of Simpson’s playing — I have trouble remembering any of the actual tunes. But for now, this band’s youthful energy and adventurous spirit are more than enough to make Schlagenheim an invigorating listen. Even if they haven’t quite found what they’re looking for, the journey itself is damn electrifying.
Schlagenheim is out now on Rough Trade. Get it here.