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black midi’s Music Embraces the Extremes

The band black midi makes complex music with a simple goal: “Drama,” Geordie Greep, its guitarist and main singer, said via a video interview from the band’s rehearsal space in London. “We’re thinking about how to make something as thrilling as possible, how to keep the tension there always.”

The group’s music arrives, most of the time, as a structured barrage: dissonant riffs, shifting rhythms, darkly cryptic lyrics and textures that can whipsaw between clockwork intricacy and pulverizing noise. Its 2019 debut album, “Schlagenheim,” presented a band that had melded the speedy precision of prog-rock with the hard-nosed vamps and abrasively eccentric vocals of post-punk, along with dollops of free jazz and atonality. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize, Britain’s award for musical quality.

On its second album, “Cavalcade,” arriving Friday, black midi broadens its music even further. The band pushes its dynamics to new extremes, juxtaposing bristling cacophony with sparsity and quietude, while Greep and Cameron Picton, the band’s bassist, sing about societal and physical decay along with the chance that music holds hope. The album even offers one straightforwardly melodic song: “Marlene Dietrich,” a bossa-nova-tinged ballad about the familiarity of pop as a sanctuary in a world of strife. “Cavalcade” is the work of a band that’s determined to defy all routines, including its own.

black midi was an early arrival in a wavelet of British bands that ignore mainstream pop’s short attention spans and programmed sounds. Instead, they present sinewy, hands-on virtuosity and knotty structures. “What’s going on everywhere in London at the moment,” Picton said, “is that there’s a huge community of really open-minded and tight-knit musicians, from full-on jazz to totally straight-up rock. And then there’s this whole kind of mishmash in the middle — really exciting stuff.”

Two audacious kindred bands — Squid and Black Country, New Road — have released their debut albums this year. “black midi are a once in a century kind of group,” said Isaac Wood, the singer and guitarist of Black Country, New Road. “Once they decide to take a walk down a certain route, they really go the whole way and explore every avenue.”

The members of black midi met at the BRIT school, London’s highly selective performing-arts and technology high school, whose alumni include Adele, Amy Winehouse and FKA twigs. The band evolved out of jam sessions in the school’s rehearsal spaces by Greep and the guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin. They invited the drummer Morgan Simpson to join them and Picton, on bass, completed the band shortly before it started to play live shows in 2017.

At first, Greep recalled, “It was less about the songs than just playing together until we got into that euphoric zone — just an excuse to play really loud for a long time. But that got kind of boring after a while, so we started making proper songs.”

Band members cited copious musical influences. Simpson, 22, had been playing drums in his Pentecostal church since he was 4 years old, learning all the flexibility and drive that comes with live gospel music. Picton, 21, started as a guitarist but had a revelation listening to Motown bass lines. Greep, 21, absorbed his father’s record collection — progressive-rock, classical music, country — but was also fascinated by the whiz-bang impact of scores for cartoons.

black midi honed its music with regular gigs at the Windmill, a pub in Brixton with a reputation for nurturing innovative bands. The group still touches down at the Windmill — most recently with a 2020 Christmastime benefit webcast to support the club through the pandemic. For that concert, black midi merged with Black Country, New Road — billed as Black Midi, New Road — to perform Christmas carols, Minimalistic improvisations and, well, “Born to Run.”

black midi’s first single appeared in 2018: “Bmbmbm,” a surly, discordant post-punk vamp interlaced with found-sound shrieks and sudden eruptions of full-band bashing. It was on the Speedy Wunderground label created by the producer Dan Carey, who heard the band at the Windmill and would go on to produce black midi’s debut album. “It was like they’d invented a new form of music,” he said by phone. “The way the tempo is so fluid, but you’re always in the groove, even if you’re sort of outside it. And then at the same time, incredibly soulful bass lines and amazing lyrics. And so fiercely put together, so much force.”

From the beginning, black midi left audiences “reeling,” he added. “It shows that it’s OK to make music that’s pretty out there, and people will like it. There’s plenty of people who are fascinated by the outer edges of normal music.”

The band carved its early songs out of ideas that arose in collective jam sessions and were reshaped by relentless touring. Material that would end up on its debut album reached a worldwide audience on YouTube with a set filmed for the Seattle public-radio station KEXP during the Iceland Airwaves Festival in 2018. For “Schlagenheim,” black midi expanded its lineup in the studio, using synthesizers and guest horn players, refusing to be confined by what its members could perform onstage. Still, the album clearly captured the band’s manic energy.

When black midi performed “Bmbmbm” on television for the Mercury Prize in 2019, Kwasniewski-Kelvin leapt and tumbled across the stage. The group went on a later tour without him, substituting BRIT schoolmates on saxophone and keyboards. In January 2021, Kwasniewski-Kelvin announced that he was taking a hiatus from the band because he was “mentally unwell.” Although he shares some composer credits on “Cavalcade,” he is not heard on the album, reducing the band to three core members. “It’s a personal situation he’s getting through,” Greep said. “We’ll see what happens.”

The pandemic transformed black midi’s songwriting process, moving from the collective to the individual. Unable to jam together, the members constructed songs largely on their own before sharing them with the rest of the group. Long stretches of working on demos at home were followed by brief bursts of studio sessions, just a few days at a time, bringing in strings, horns, keyboards and percussion alongside the band members.

Working in isolation brought out an introspective side in songs like Picton’s “Diamond Stuff,” which patiently picks a handful of acoustic guitar notes for a full two minutes, nearly half its length. It also gave members a chance to experiment with ideas. Greep noted that parts of “Slow” — a song that gleefully belies its title — are based on an octatonic scale often used by Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky; it also borrows a favorite chord change from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini film “8 1/2,” before veering off in a different harmonic direction.

“Cavalcade” opens with “John L,” a churning, galloping song about a demagogue who comes to town, draws crowds and raises an “infernal din” before he is overthrown. Other songs are more ambiguous: sometimes sardonic (“Hogwash and Balderdash”) and sometimes dire (“Dethroned”). Picton said, “The breadth of just ridiculous stuff happening on a global scale probably informed a lot of it, either unconsciously or consciously.”

While preparing to tour again, band members have also been writing songs for a third album. “One thing that we all really want to do is enhance the pretty and beautiful and melodic side of things,” Simpson said. “But also go even more to town with the crazy, super intense loud stuff. We really want to try and just maximize both ends.”

As band members talked about their music, the word “crazy” kept coming up. For black midi, it’s a point of pride. “I think it’s better to go crazy, full crazy, and fail, than just do something you know you can do,” Greep said. “We’re just going further in all directions.”

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