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Album Review: black midi - Schlagenheim


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The debut album from the mysteriously shrouded in a cloud of hype black midi is a crazed math rock mission statement. Schlagenheim is a nonsense word, a made-up location of agglutinative German that reflects the record’s frustrating tension of almost-meaning.

Album Art 'Schlagenheim' (2019)

Lack of resolution is probably the album’s defining aspect, but this is no product of lazy songwriting or slapdash unfinishedness, rather a potent desire to express something, which is so powerful that it ends up obscuring any coherent through-thread. What the band achieves in the process, however, is unquestionably remarkable.

‘953’ launches us into the album at breakneck pace with the drums, in particular, conveying a sense of untameable forward momentum. It not as if what they are doing has never been done before – their sound evokes Mogwai’s Young Team’s harshest moments, Muse’s Origin of Symmetry era and the sharpest edges of Biffy Clyro’s Infinity Land – but it’s supplemented with Morgan Simpson’s (on sticks) jazz background and Geordie Greep’s unhinged, whiny delivery of ambiguous lyrics.

This track is followed by ‘Speedway’, which, ironically, slows down the pace to a mellower feel. Bass player Cameron Picton takes over vocal duties here and ushers in a significant tonal shift that reveals quite a different set of influences including the coolness of Sonic Youth and awkward deadpan of Parquet Courts. It’s a song about urban decay with groovy percussion and wah-wah guitar and announces with phlegmatic confidence black midi’s “new sound/ this new ground”.

Perhaps the title of the third track is a kind of jibe at music journalists who are hopelessly trying to pigeonhole the band into one nameable genre with the epithet ‘Reggae’. This has very little to do with what is contained within its mostly math rock inspired two minutes, although a dub remix is just about conceivable. A xylophone makes an appearance here; one of the band’s several unconventional instrumentation decisions. ‘Near DT, MI’ then switches back to Picton on vocals as he screams, “there’s lead in the water/get in the water” over furious atonal guitar work.

‘Western’ is the album’s weakest point and arrives after we’re already somewhat fatigued following the dogged lack of melody or riffs on the previous two tracks. It operates in a current trend of the cowboy aesthetic in vogue without really engaging meaningfully with it. Although it’s a welcome respite in the track listing, at eight minutes it’s rather uninventive and only kicks in with a brilliant bass groove and percussion in the fifth of these. It’s an unfocussed jam that ends bizarrely with some banjo.

Luckily, we have a return to form on an impeccable 11 minutes beginning with ‘Of Schlagenheim’ and ending with the already infamous ‘bmbmbm’. These tracks encapsulate black midi’s trailblazing strengths and their weaknesses. The former begins with a stiff, driving drumbeat that sharpens atmospheric guitars into focus and backs Greep’s demented David Byrne inflections. This is then abruptly shattered by the machine-gun-like hammering of synth stabs as we move into the next phase of this linear composition. Greep raves in stream of consciousness, declaring, “I dream of a woman with the teeth of a raven and the head of a porcupine”. ‘Of Schlagenheim’ bleeds out and swirling noise sucks us into the beast that is ‘bmbmbm’.

The performance of this song in KEXP’s studio in Reykjavik is where many first encountered the band and is totally unique combination of supremely odd elements – a distorted sample of a woman’s distraught shrieking (apparently courtesy of former Big Brother contestant, Nikki Grahame), the lowest note on a baritone guitar (in between bass and a standard axe) and the loose riffing on less than 30 words. It shouldn’t work, but it does and so well. The only downside is that it feels like the first part of something incredibly grandiose, but this is never realised on Schalgenheim.

black midi’s debut album is raw, visceral and supremely weird. It’s an example of what can happen when brilliant musicians discard what’s come before and try to carve a new path. Unfortunately, this means that the end product is rather unrefined and the experimental, improvised nature of their creations can be tiresome from the listener’s perspective. Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that this is an important moment for guitar music and when they do strike upon brilliance, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.

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