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.)