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Three Songs No Flash

Doubts Evaporate: Black Midi Live At EartH Hackney
Sean Kitching , June 20th, 2019 08:35

Feted four piece play large London show in run up to release of debut album but how are they faring on the big stage, asks Sean Kitching

Photograph by StarLynn Jacobs

Red and blue lights bathe the stage of EartH as a sequence of ascending, pulsing tones ring out across a densely packed audience. Resonating sounds give way to a Mr Bungle-style a cappella and percussion intro track that swells in intensity to Foetus and Swans-like levels of industrial grind.

It’s a fantastic intro, more exciting than some bands’ actual performances, and one that seems entirely befitting, given the high degree of anticipation attached to tonight’s Black Midi show. With the release of their excellent debut album, Schlagenheim, only days away and online buzz reaching levels usually unheard of for such a young band, the BRIT schooled foursome have a lot of hype to live up to as they take to the stage at by far their biggest London show to date.

Two ten-gallon hatted guitarists occupy the middle of the stage, bass player to the left and drummer at the far right. The hats, no doubt souvenirs of their several well-received performances at SXSW in Austin, Texas, in March, look a little incongruous on such slight heads and shoulders, but there’s no denying their complete conviction as the band launch into the fierce stop/start stagger of Schlagenheim’s opening track, ‘953’.

Monstrously loud, crunching riffs crash against each other, whilst drummer, Morgan Simpson, does improbable things with time; his beats seeming to delineate the interiors of guitar-produced explosions. Almost every article I’ve read about the band takes little time in proclaiming this drummer’s abilities, and it only takes a minute or so into the first track to see why he’s placed in such a prominent position on the stage.

The post-punk inflected singles ‘Talking Heads’ and ‘Speedway’ follow, the latter bringing a welcome change of pace and showcasing the fluid interplay between bassist Cameron Picton and Simpson on drums. ‘Of Schlagenheim’ keeps the post-punk rhythmic sensibility going, bass fuzzing out, vocalist Geordie Greep wigging out, as the track’s velocity accelerates towards a pulsing crescendo.

At this point, any doubts I had, given the weight of expectation on the band, have more or less evaporated. Black Midi are great news for anyone with a lingering fondness for the many great experimental American rock bands whose sound can be gleaned within their own. Elements of Fugazi, Minutemen, Polvo, Don Caballero, Battles, At The Drive In and Mars Volta are certainly present in their sonic make-up. Yet Black Midi transcend such simple genre-type definitions of their sound so well on their debut LP, that repeat listens reveal subtle layers of detail wholly their own.

Whereas a band such as Battles had a great sound, it was often remarked that they were lacking in songs, which isn’t something Black Midi can be accused of. The fact too that improvisation appears to be so central to their creative process, marks them apart from apart from most other bands who have shared similar influences. Knowing how to position such improvised sections in a live context, in contrast to the tightly composed album and single tracks is perhaps something they haven’t quite figured out to full effect yet. As captivating as their opening four tracks are, the largely improvised 20 or so minutes that follows loses me a little, and my interest is only recaptured when the gently twanging guitar of ‘Western’ starts up.

Without doubt one of the standout tracks on the album, ‘Western’ is a beautifully composed piece of music with different movements and moods that effortlessly manages to keep an incredibly infectious groove going throughout all its sections.

The contrasts between fast/slow and loud/quiet are more apparent when listening to Black Midi’s album than in their live show, and some of the delicacy of those tracks which makes their debut so appealing get a little lost in the breakneck velocity and overwhelming volume of tonight’s performance. Piling levels of intensity upon one another without respite can sometimes simply dull the senses, and it would appear that the band are aware of this, given their attempts at diversionary improvisation. That these efforts didn’t quite fulfil my own weighty expectations derived from repeated listens to their stellar debut should not be a disappointment for myself or anyone else.

Black Midi are about to release one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year. Their live show too, is very good indeed and if there is room yet for them to grow in that realm, then audiences and critics alike ought to show some patience and allow them the space to refine their already considerable abilities. Such weighty expectations as are attached to Black Midi can be highly destructive to young bands who have risen so quickly, and we owe it to both them and ourselves not to let that happen, lest we divert them from their apparent course of evolving into something as great as those expectations lead us to hope they may with time become.

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