On Tuesday, much hyped, Black Midi announced the release of their highly anticipated debut album. For a band known to operate somewhat outside the norms of what we’ve come to expect of release campaigns and social media interactions, the announcement was relatively understated; there’s a press release and a digital mockup of the sleeve artwork by visual artist David Rudnick.
Here’s what you need to know:
It’s called Schlagenheim. From what I can discern it’s a Germanic style word fabricated for the purpose of the album title and is suggested to mean “Hitting Home”. It’s out via Rough Trade on June 21st. It will contain nine tracks totalling 43 minutes in length; the titles of these tracks will be announced on the release day.
The album has been produced by Dan Carey. For the uninitiated, Carey was responsible for previous Black Midi releases, The Speedway EP, and the single ‘bmbmbm’, the latter coming via his own tastemaker-cum-vanity label, Speedy Wunderground. Dan’s production credits host some huge household names but more importantly, the label has recently released essential tracks from Black Country, New Road and Squid. Add to that the fact he is behind the production on the acclaimed Fontaines DC debut album, its safe to say we’re living in the Post-Punk revival age of Dan Carey and this new long-player looks to cement his name as the go-to producer du jour for that sort of thing.
Accompanying the news of the album, the band announced a show would take place on the very same day (Tuesday 14th). The location would be a secret London venue and interest could be registered via SeeTickets. Naturally, I fell for this marketing subterfuge and got my name in the hat. A few hours later I’d been contacted with the chance to buy a single ticket, STILL unaware of the venue, I made the purchase and was then informed I was going to New River Studios in North London that evening.
The venue was a perfect choice for this show. An arty but not pretentious, communal vibe with home-made pizzas, sofas and a video installation in the reception bar. Down a corridor, guided by printouts taped to the walls, the crowd is directed to what is likely to be one of the smallest spaces I’ve ever seen a live performance. There’s a two and a half metre square Turkish rug in the middle of the room, half-lit only by red lamps and placed on it in the centre is a house plant and a cymbal raised high off the ground. Guitar amps are placed on three of the rug’s corners facing inward and the fourth corner hosts a drum kit and SPD pads. There are three pedalboards on the rug and three folding chairs. That’s it, there’s no more room. The band will play in the round, facing one another. The space left in the perimeter of the room is enough for only a few people. I guess it to be perhaps seventy or eighty people after a headcount later in the evening. This is to be one of those “I was there” type moments and everyone can feel it.
There’s an ambient droning guitar loop repeating as the room quickly fills. After a brief moment, frontman Geordie Greep takes his place on his chair, adjusts his Soviet Army style overcoat and a hat I’d assume to be a stetson, straps on his guitar and begins adding the loop we’ve been hearing. Long, sustained notes played with delays and an e-bow with a slide are layered to make washes and waves and he trills over and around these soundscapes, dexterously exploring scales. After a few minutes of this refined noodling, Greep is joined on the rug by brothers in arms, Cameron Picton on bass and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin on second guitar. What follows is what I can only assume is an almost completely improvised unbroken fifteen-minute jam. That word “jam” upsets me because there are no blues riffs being slapped around, instead it’s a distinctly styled, more original creative interaction but a jam nonetheless.
Focussed on short lead runs from all three members, syncopated chord stabs and a seamless exchange and sharing of the compositional spectrum, they swap dynamic focus and create entrancing crescendos through repetition and stop-start layering. These three are clearly at home here together.
Until this moment, percussion has only existed in the form of rhythmically struck dampened guitar strings but that all comes to a halt with the arrival of Morgan Simpson. Without altering the flow of the music evolving in front of the crowd, he takes his seat and slots right in, both as the drummer but also now as somewhat of a conductor. Whilst the other three members are freely exploring their ad libs, Simpson has the ability to draw the audience attention by choosing to interact more directly with individual phrases, patterns and runs from each of his bandmates to steer and anchor.
Geordie’s vocals start to creep in here too, sometimes as spoken surrealist non-sequiturs, sometimes howled wails and sometimes as genuinely beautiful, if a little unrefined, Jeff Buckley style vocal sweeps.
What follows is a mixed bag of familiar and unfamiliar sounds and compositions. I can’t imagine there is anyone in the room hearing Black Midi for the first time but there are certainly those who have followed longer, seen more videos online, shared bootleg recordings and are au fait with some of the tracks not available on streaming sites. I for one can’t tell apart ‘untitled 1’ from ‘untitled 3’ but there are some who can and they’re having a different experience.
The improvisation flows naturally and although of course unique, there are touchstones to help explain what we’re hearing. There are tangible elements you’d recognise from a broad and diverse range of influences for four young men. Present are motifs and stylistic elements in the vein of Battles, Can, Neu!, Beefheart, Zappa, Slint, Death Grips, Lightning Bolt, Fugazi, Radiohead, King Crimson, more and then a whole host of Jazz masters. Loose at times, tight at times. Perfect in places and flawed in others. It is astoundingly impressive to watch this performance unfold in union with the band. The arrangements in this still constant, unbroken piece are coming to life both for the performers and the audience and it’s a marvel to behold. The piece comes to a head and the group give themselves a moment to collect themselves amongst the applause.
The folding chairs are fumbled into what space can be found and now the three guitar players are at their feet. With little time to catch a breath, they run through what we might consider being the “hits”.
The freestyle improv section is over and these are the set-piece songs in the more traditional sense, this time featuring the central rug cymbal. I forget the order in the melee but latest single ‘Talking Heads’ rears its head, the voice of former Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame is heard for part of ‘bmbmbm’ and at one point I notice Simpson mouthing ‘Speedway’ to signify to his cohorts it was to follow too.
After playing for nearly two hours uninterrupted, Geordie breaks the fourth wall to ask the house staff if the 11pm curfew is strict. They wanted to play even longer! They wrap up after a little over two hours and with a polite, egoless head nod and a nervous wave, they leave the room.
This was an intense and draining experience for me as a viewer so I have no idea how knackered they must be.
Bands often struggle to capture their live appeal on a studio album. Black Midi know this and they simply aren’t going to try. You couldn’t fit tonight’s two-hour performance onto a single record anyway! Whatever form the studio versions take, it will undoubtedly be experimental, challenging and fun in equal parts.
Expect to see gushing live reviews of Black Midi this year along with a record which will trouble the upper echelons of album-of-the-year lists.
Black Midi plays a short UK tour in support of the debut album but the way they operate, they could announce more semi-secret shows at the drop of a hat tomorrow.
Tue 18 Jun 7:00 PM – EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney), London
Thu 20 Jun 7:30 PM – Fiddlers Club, Bristol
Fri 21 Jun 8:00 PM – Phase One, Liverpool
Sat 22 Jun 8:00 PM – Mono, Kings Court, Glasgow
Sun 23 Jun 7:00 PM – Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham
The album is released on 21/06/19 via Rough Trade.
Pre-order it here.