Boom Boom Boom (Way-Ooh): Schlagenheim by Black Midi

Young noise wranglers Black Midi are making good on their promise, finds Cal Cashin

credit: Anthrox Studios

At the very end of Masahiko Satoh & Sound Breakers’ 1971 record Amalgamation, the Japanese band leader directs his cosmic voyagers into one tempestuous group “hi-yah!” to bring proceedings to a grinding halt. Perhaps, one of the great conclusions to any album – jazz, or otherwise – it really earns its epic finale through a grand array of vital free jazz tricks.

At the end of ‘Ducter’, the eight minute closer of Black Midi’s Schlagenheim, Geordie Greep adopts a kind of satanic babytalk, belting out ‘goo-goo-goos’ atop a devastating Swans-lite riff before the track and album fade to black. And to put it simply, throughout Schlagenheim Black Midi earn this kind of set piece finale.

Two years ago, when a teenage Greep emailed just about every venue within the M25, the only response he got was from The Windmill in Brixton, who were willing to offer the combo a handful of support slots. A few explosive sets in support of Warmduscher, HMLTD, and Shame, and all of a sudden Black Midi were the talk of the town.

The past year of infamy has seen Black Midi deal in mystique; skirting away from the spotlight, releasing occasional singles, rarely giving interviews and playing live increasingly sporadically. Indeed, they are the weirdest hype band in Britain. Black Midi have certainly done very well off the back of this mystery, this aloofness. However, as this week sees the release of Schlagenheim, their debut record, the latest prospect off the Brit School production line can no longer hide from the spotlight. And it is with the utmost delight that I can report, when the spotlights are on and the amplifiers are plugged in, Black Midi are absolute superstars.

Guitar music, rock in particular, has a common misconception about it: that technical ability equals great music. But what we have with Black Midi are four very, very young men, machine-like in their virtuosity, so psychically in tune with one another that each live performance feels utterly superhuman. They so efficiently bolt together such disparate styles and influences; from the obvious math rock, jazz and post-punk, to the much less obvious screamo splutters of guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin on ‘Years Ago’ that burst through the mutant disco marimba-and-bass shuffle.

The band’s musical ideas are so bright, and so densely packed into their songs, that it just feels unfair. There’s a moment on opener ‘953’ after a chugging Sonic Youth riff collapses exhausted into fiddly chicken-plucking scrawl… And straight away, the band’s duel guitars go again, locking into an improvised guitar lick, with riffs played at light speed atop numerous squalls of industrial garb.

So regularly do Black Midi choose to abandon hooks and verses, in favour of ideas; songs are built around the band’s many guitar flourishes, Greep’s vocal tics, and, at the very centre of everything, Morgan Simpson’s powerhouse drum performances. On ‘Of Schlagenheim’, utter chaos is made infectiously danceable by Simpson’s driving percussion cavalcade. At so many points on the record, the drummer is the star, a cyborg Jaki Liebezeit upgraded with the litany of reappropriated machines from the album’s cover.

‘Bmbmbm’ is perhaps most evocative of the cryptic, mechanical cover art. The band’s debut single booms, booms, and booms some more. Atop spidery riffs Greep hollers: “wh-what a magnificent purpose”. Greep is intriguing whenever you can make out his words, and banshee-like when you can’t make head nor tail. In an earlier incarnation, the single version of ‘bmbmbm’ featured a cursèd sample of Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame in the background, but was revamped to instead feature one of Greep’s vocal exorcisms. Critics in the past have interpreted Greep’s eccentricity as too annoying, too precocious, too po-faced, but on ‘bmbmbm’ and throughout Schlagenheim the frontman is enthralling. He sounds like he’s having just as much fun as the listener.

Greep, and indeed the other members when they take the helm, are vocally unintelligible, with only occasional fragments lucid. Greep’s lyrics are abstract, with meaning that’s hard to gleam. On ‘Ducter’, Greep sings: “every quote just eats itself with a new perspective”. Quite. On ‘near DT, MI’ we get perhaps the most explicit set of lyrics on Schlagenheim. Bassist Cameron Picton sings of the distress in Flint, the US city near Detroit, Michigan that has been without clean water for five years. On top of Greep and Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s guitar mania, perhaps the most instantly gratifying on the album, Picton furiously belts out “there’s lead in the water, there’s lead in the water/there’s lead in the water and you think that I’m fine.”

Schlagenheim pivots from choppy math-rock to ticking tetchy guitar pop with ease, and then to stoner rock and then deafening noise sections that come close to drawing parallels to the dense note clusters of the internet genre the band share their name with. Black Midi have stated before that they simply want to make album after album after album, never stalling or staying the same. If Schlagenheim is just a taste of what’s to come, we could be sitting on a really, really special group.

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