Rock music has been far from trendy for a while now, and it seems as if many of the once innovative bands of the ‘90s and early 2000s are stuck recycling the same ideas to lackluster effect (Korn) or are simply not making music anymore (System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine).
However, this issue largely plagues the mainstream as cutting edge bands continue to crop up in the underground. One such group is the London quartet Black Midi (often stylized as black midi) and their debut, Schlagenheim, is some of the boldest rock music to come out this year.
Schlagenheim is the kind of album that is better described by referencing the various groups that could be potential influences for it, rather than trying to pigeonhole it into a particular style. The album’s dynamics and beauty bring Alt-J to mind, but with a more tense atmosphere and very prominent math rock and noise rock influence.
Still, this does not comprise all of Black Midi’s sound, as there is a strong sense of experimentation on the record that manifests itself in the form of various electronic textures, a peculiar vocal sample, warped effects, and unorthodox instrumental additions.
The album begins with “953,” which showcases the band’s math rock influence. The style’s use of odd time signatures and the cacophonous harmony found in more aggressive strains are here in spades. The next phase of the track doubles down on these ideas: the band starts off playing what feels like a conventional groove until drummer Morgan Simpson lets the syncopated fills fly.
Ultimately, the band does hit a more intuitive stride before reeling it in a bit for a more subdued verse section. This command of dynamics as well as groove is seen throughout much of the tracklist, and while there are plenty of math-oriented ideas to be heard, the band does not venture so far out that they are hard to follow.
“Speedway,” is not the catchiest song of the bunch, but the textural detail of the song and rushes of distortion give the song plenty of character.
Simpson’s drumming on the following track, “Reggae,” is one of the main highlights on Schlagenheim. It’s driving and gets notably detailed towards the middle of the song, giving off a slight improvisational feel. The intro to “Near DT, MI,” sounds like something off of the last album from Rhode Island’s industrial/noise rock quartet Daughters, with its overwhelming dissonance before mellowing out. Bassist Cameron Picton provides vocals on the track and the shouted section makes for some of the most captivating vocals on the album and contribute a different flavor of mania as compared to frontman Geordie Greep’s deranged whimpering.
“Western,” is easily the most uplifting moment on the album, with its gorgeous, clean guitar passages and Greep’s vocal performance feeling, at several points, transcendental. It is a well-deserved dose of optimism amongst the eight other frantic tracks and with it being the longest track at just over eight minutes, it shows that the band is more than capable of conjuring exclusively one kind of mood as they shift from one blissful section to the next and offer ample time to decompress from all the tension built up in preceding tracks.
But, while “Western,” feels like the light at the end of the tunnel, the band shows that there is plenty of strange, darkness left. “Of Schlagenheim,” is essentially the emotional opposite of its predecessor. From the stuttering, gritty synth that shakes violently at several points, to the jagged guitar riff that juts in, the atmosphere is consistently unsettling. This is only enhanced by Greep’s singing, which occasionally degenerates, in the best way possible, into bombastic cries.
“Bmbmbm,” sees the band keeping things (relatively) simple, but Simpson’s fills propel the song forward and keep monotony at bay until the band reaches a crescendo worthy of full-body headbanging.
If the album had ended after this point, Black Midi would still have a respectably bold collection of tracks, but “Years Ago,” shows just how determined the band is to push the envelope. While the track is as noisy (if not more so) as any other here, there is not as much in the way of catchy riffs or vocals to make it as addictive as highlights such as “Reggae,” “Western,” or “Of Schlagenheim.”
“Ducter,” serves as a solid finish to Schlagenheim, sprinkled with a handful of odd samples and the processing on Greep’s voice adding a very spacious quality to the mix. In the final moments, the music hits a fever pitch on all fronts and takes very little time afterward to cool down and ring out, which feels only fitting for an experience as tense as Schlagenheim.
Even in its weakest moments, Schlagenheim is still a very creative album. For as risky as Black Midi gets over the course of these nine tracks, the amount of ideas that end up not working out at all is essentially none and the amount of ideas that amaze is plentiful.
To hear a band bring this many catchy as well as challenging ideas to the table is the kind of refreshing balance of accessible and experimental that will help propel rock music forward because while rock is certainly not dead, it needs a push in a new direction and Black Midi is providing that push.
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