Cerebral, authentic and genuinely shy brilliance from Black Midi.
Since they first emerged towards the end of 2017, discussions of Black Midi
have been of a permanent, almost obligatory enthusiasm. To anyone growing jaded by the traditionalist post-punk groups that became ubiquitous during The Fat White Family’s
recent hiatus, the fastidious, clanging avant-garde compositions of these four Brit School grads (something the press always seems to find amusing) has been a breath of fresh air. This, of course, has been the media’s general approach to the group: as an oddity amongst their supposed ‘peers’ in the widely-peddled ‘South London Scene’.
In Bristol, where they play tonight, it’s a different story. Black Midi combine of industrial, minimalist and math-rock sensibilities reflects the existing work of popular local artists such as The Naturals
and The Iceman Furniss Quartet
. In a similar manner to Sheffield’s Blood Sport
, one might expect the group to find a ready-made home here. I was surprised then, to find reports from their only previous Bristol performance (the O2 Academy Bristol at Simple Things Festival) seemed to be very mixed. To some, it simply didn’t live up to expectation. While their show tonight at Rough Trade Bristol
sold out almost immediately, one cannot help but sense a certain guardedness in the atmosphere: ‘So this is the new hype-band everyone’s going on about? Let’s see it then’.
After a screamed ‘ARE YOU READY?’ through the speakers, introducing a heavily-distorted edit of Charlie XCX’s ‘Roll With Me’, Black Midi walk on stage and begin a melodic, initially-underwhelming number. After a pause, in which one audience member tentatively starts clapping, the song enters a wilder, more expressive phase which closes (this time) to rapturous applause. This sets up three major conceits in the set: an occasionally-revealed sense of humour (incongruous with the seriousness of their music and personas), a recurring uncertainty amongst the audience about quite when to clap, and sharp transitions between their more reserved, vocal-driven pieces and the cacophonous Keiji Haino-esque blasts they are more widely appreciated for. The second song follows suit, featuring distorted bursts of varying speed and intricacy, revolving around a repeated four-note riff. At the climax of the song, the riff gradually slows to rest at about half of its usual pace: a genuinely triumphant finish marking one of the set’s best moments. Vocalist Geordie Greep fires off one of the celebratory leg-kicks that pepper the set.
Black Midi perform in a horizontal line, without speaking to (or even really looking at) anyone in the audience beyond the sound-engineer. From left to right, the crowd is faced by bassist Cameron Picton, vocalist and guitarist Greep, guitarist Matt Kelvin and drummer Morgan Simpson, the last of whom is situated side-on against the right wall to face his bandmates. This bizarre setup creates a visible, permanently-in-use line of communication through the band, whilst reinforcing its sense of democracy: every member, at some point, steps into the role of ‘frontman’. Greep, the thickly-accented principal vocalist, spends most of the time watching a particular point on the floor to his left; his mouth twists rightwards to the microphone, and his left hand often leaves the guitar to gesticulate in the air. Kelvin, a more
unhinged presence, delivers gritty vocals on a bludgeoning track named ‘Years Ago’. Picton lends spoken-word to one of the set’s finest songs: a long, atmospheric piece that would have felt right at home on Slint’s Spiderland. Simpson’s bombastic, imaginative drumming frequently sees him become the group’s undisputed focal point. At one point, one of his cymbals (which are not held down with nuts or felts) falls off; he clamps it down with one hand, hits it twice, returns it to the stand and continues playing without interruption.
The songs are not all equally gripping. At about the mid-point in the set, a track is opened with a long, rather formless blues jam that a couple of people behind me unapologetically speak over. The favourites are, predictably, the only two songs to have received some kind of release: an unnamed track from the NTS Flesh & Bone Studios session, and ‘bmbmbm’. They are both exceptional. Greep’s eccentric delivery on the latter, scatting around the repeated phrase ‘she moves with a purpose’, is a joy. Kelvin plays a sample out of his phone into his guitar pickup for most of the song, altering and distorting it with his pedalboard. Despite only joining in for the song’s dizzying final blast, he still breaks two strings in the set’s highly energetic finale.
Black Midi is an interesting group for many reasons, beyond the fact that they are simply a more cerebral prospect than we are used to seeing gather this much critical and popular attention. They write (for the most part) very interesting music. They have an inscrutability that, appearing to be borne out of genuine shyness (rather than PR magick tricks), is authentic. However, they are also a new band. At the time of review, they have just released their second single, which follows the first by almost a year. Having generated this much attention from such little material, they will be open to the great excesses of judgement (good or bad) that all ‘hype-bands’ are. If a judgement should be made on the group this early, I think it should be this: that their current rise augurs – we might hope – a new attentiveness from this country’s mainstream press and industry towards music that is more leftfield, unusual and ambitious. This would be a national blessing.
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