Having successfully been the “most-talked-about-band-of-the-weekend” at pretty much every major new band festival in the world this year, black midi have built a reputation for making an impression. The big question has always been “can they make it work on record?”. Their debut album ‘schlagenheim’ is a pretty definitive answer.
For the uninformed, black midi are a young, unassuming four-piece who met at the BRIT School in Croydon (best known for churning out pop stars like Adele, Jessie J and Katie Melua). Their drummer, Morgan Simpson, is a show-stopper who puts The Muppets’ Animal to shame. And their influences include 20th century classical pianist Bartók and rapper Danny Brown - though neither of these are in any way audible on the record.
The music of ‘schlagenheim’ is something far more explosive than any of the aforementioned. Inside lies a host of angular acid-punk tracks, full of polyrhythmic noodlings, spaced-out ambient phases and freeform beats that seem to be playing inside their own universe. A decent reference point would be prog titans King Crimson, post-rock pioneers Mogwai, or the avant-garde noise-making of Can, Lightning Bolt and Sonic Youth. But since the band betray all popular notions of genre, structure and melody, perhaps it’s better to leave expectations at the door.
‘953’ opens the record with spiky guitar riffs, atonal fretwork and ear-bleeding distortion. It features a sprawling middle section that provides some quiet time for Geordie Greep’s croaking vocals, before a clattering climax sees the band slow all the way down to a crawl. ‘near DT, MI’ alludes to the water crisis in Flint Michigan as bassist Cameron Picton screams “dead in the water” over a tower of tension-building guitars. And ‘western’ features jaunting basslines, synthesizers and even a banjo across an eight-minute runtime of flowery guitar instrumentals. No two songs are the same, but every track feels distinctly complex, challenging, and provocative.
Awarding black midi the Hyundai Mercury Prize would be a “f**k you” to the current state of textbook, melody-rich, verse-chorus pop elsewhere. But perhaps more than anyone else on this year’s list of shortlisted acts, they are a band would be propelled to even greater heights with a win. This prodigious bunch have already thrown the rulebook out the window on their debut album - they’ll be trashing libraries for album two.
And for all its oddness and unconventionality, ‘schlagenheim’ might just be the most obvious choice for the Hyundai Mercury Prize. It is, after all, an institution that has a reputation for making a bold statement.
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Watch performances from the shortlisted artists on BBC Four at 10pm on 23rd September.
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