Review | black midi - Schlagenheim
The London-based art school quartet black midi follow their hype on their debut album, bringing a unique style to math rock and post-hardcore.
If the first half of 2019 has taught us anything, it's that the underground scene is holding firm to its roots. While the biggest artists in the world like Drake and Ed Sheeran continue to dominate the world of pop with no sign of branching out, the underground scene continues to grow continuously more experimental and bend the rules of genre. The London-based rock band black midi's debut album Schlagenheim is an interesting, flawed, but promising debut that's sure to stick out as one of the best rock records of the year.
black midi's hype started in 2018. By this time, they had already been around for three years, but focused mainly on jamming more than actual songwriting. That year, they had two major live performances which invited a cult audience, attracting younger indieheads and older prog snobs alike. Their performance on KEXP was only 26 minutes, but it showed a band who could experiment greatly, yet also write coherent music - for the most part. The most notable part was the drummer, as Morgan Simpson seemed light-years ahead of his associates. For snobs who love technical and chaotic, yet tight drumming, Simpson became popular. To make things better, the band got to play live with the famous Can drummer Damo Suzuki, who is well-acclaimed for his tight and entrancing rhythms and grooves in the former band's psychedelic jams. That live performance was released in September and showed the band's greater potential, but more importantly how they weren't bound to the indie sound.
With well-received live performances and a few early singles, Schlagenheim's hype has been built up and it lives up to it fairly well. The band successfully balances technical and avant-garde music with actual songwriting and interesting-enough concepts; it's definitely experimental, but it feels digestible enough for those who have heard enough math and noise rock. With the acclaim surrounding Daughter's You Won't Get What You Want from last October, this anxious, jittery, and artsy style of punk isn't too much of a radical departure from what's dominated the underground before, but it still sounds very unique in its style and execution. It's clearly a punk-oriented album, but incorporates enough different styles of music that it doesn't sound like any other punk album from this decade. Relying less on an atmosphere and more on suspenseful and progressive music, Schlagenheim is quite an eclectic album.
Perhaps the record's biggest departure from much of the recent noise rock is how calculated and rhythmic this feels. Sure, it can sound claustrophobic at times; the entire last minute of Near DT, MI sounds like a panic attack recorded live in the studio, the fantastic opener 953 builds up for a heavy crescendo, and the same applies for Ducter. But this band has rhythm, and with the work of Simpson, uncommon time signatures and all, and Cameron Picton on bass, the band actually swings quite a lot. Listen to those rhythms on Western or the grooves on Years Ago; even when they get heavier and more chaotic, they still remain very tight, and even though Simpson's drumming is very technical and abstract, he still sounds as fluid as some of his idols like Suzuki.
In addition, the band blends in soundscapes of ambient and even post-rock into these condensed jams; the synthesizer is used frequently, whether it's for random squiggles that make up most of the intro to Speedway or the buzzing on Of Schlagenheim. These songs don't come railing right off, and if they have a dramatic climax, there's always a strictly followed and carefully planned buildup to that point of no return. In some cases, it works out quite well, but it can get a bit stale and boring on some tracks.
This album benefits from an eclectic sound, and no song really sounds like its predecessor, but there are still times when black midi fall a bit short. The album's biggest blunder is most likely bmbmbm, which has a hook simple and dumb enough to get stuck in one's head, but is fairly annoying. Like as Mark E. Smith kept repeating "hip priest" on The Fall's song of the same name, it's a lot of repetition which doesn't add a lot, nor build up to much. It's not even that entertaining; Greep's vocals aren't as grating as some suggest, but his entire performance on this song opens his style up to criticism. It's not that bad of a song; its rhythm is simple but foreboding, and the backing sample helps to create an eerie atmosphere that no other song truly has, but it doesn't go anywhere super exciting. The last two minutes sound like Daughters, but really aren't that magnificent, and its climax is a bit underwhelming to say the least. Years Ago, which follows, lacks much of a charm or edge to put it above anything else; crazy distorted vocals are repeated above a wave of synths and guitar chords, but there is no distinct identity or anything to remember it for. Speedway is one of the less aggressive songs here, containing sparse vocals and an anxious sound that builds up, making you think it's going to crash down on your ass, but then reverts back into that anxious groove. Quite disappointing to say the least.
Schlagenheim's fundamental problem isn't the inconsistency of concepts that excite; it's the production. The production here seems too thin for its own good; the band wasn't going for all-out aggression, or even a consistently claustrophobic and punishing sound like Glenn Branca, to use a non-Daughters example for once, but its sound still isn't very dynamic, nor is it that groovy. These anxious rhythms here do create genuinely good grooves, generally speaking, but the grooves aren't that deep and more dynamic production would help give them much more swing. And when they're trying to sound aggressive and brutal, they rarely succeed outside of Near DT, MI, because the production is too clean. The band went all-out on that politically-charged song (lyrics are about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan) and it sounds raw, atonal, and great, but elsewhere they fall a bit flat because they don't sound that raw and they lack the maximal efforts condensed into that one, short and graceful track. The album's clean production helps highlight these rhythms, and makes it sonically pleasing enough, but without a doubt Schlagenheim could benefit from more muscular or groovy production-think of Steve Albini's work on something aggressive like 953, or Brian Eno's genius unleashed on a more rhythmic track like Western. Sounds good, doesn't it?
Overall, this is a very good album with only a few blunders. It rarely reaches the level of greatness, but most songs are interesting enough to warrant replays and acclaim. With influences ranging from Pere Ubu (specifically the vocal mannerisms of David Thomas), This Heat (remnant of Paper Hats in sound and structure), The Fall (the vocal mannerisms of Smith and his artsy punk), and especially from Devo (in their deconstructed and purely manic style of punk), black midi were able to create an album that shares the best elements of the former greats, but that also sounds innovative and unique for an experimental album in one of the biggest years for the avant-garde underground scene.
Best song: Near DT, MI
Worst song: Years Ago