Genre: Noise Rock, Post-Punk
Favorite Tracks: “953,” “Near DT, MI,” “Western,” “Of Schlagenheim,” “Ducter”
It’s already been a very long road for me and black midi’s SCHLAGENHEIM. Several times now I have stared at the blank, blinking, formidable nothingness of an empty Google Doc, clueless of where to even begin with this piece. It seemed, at times, as though there was almost too much to say, and that I would never be able to properly encapsulate my experience with this band and with this record with mere words on a page.
And yet, alas, this review must be written, and I must at least give it my best try:
With SCHLAGENHEIM, London-based four-piece black midi has executed, with their debut record, the musical equivalent of James Bond leaping away from an explosion through a set of rapidly closing blast doors and into the top albums of the decade conversation. One of the best debut albums in years, this record is bold, dynamic, and stunningly creative, a shot in the arm of freshness that guitar music sorely needs. Harnessing a truly impressive array of sounds, styles, and energies, SCHLAGENHEIM puts together a sort of patchwork collage of experimental rock that manages to be both intensely visceral and deeply cerebral. To name the artists whose influence can be felt in this record would be to take one on a lengthy tour of musical sounds spanning many genres, so allow me to dive into its contents.
SCHLAGENHEIM begins with an absolute heater, “953,” which kicks things off with an immediately arresting groove, played with the heaviness and conviction of a thrash metal group and the rhythmic complexity of a Frank Zappa deep cut. It’s made immediately apparent that these guys are, speaking in terms of musicianship, incredibly adept at their craft as they dive into highly technically impressive material at the top. The heavy and halting riff melts away within 90 seconds to reveal an ominous verse passage, featuring oblique and deeply veiled lyricisms from frontman Geordie Greep set over a tranquil but decidedly dark backdrop of low-tuned guitars. The song switches between a hypnotizing verse and a brutal intro riff before devolving into a King Crimson-like cacophony of noise. It’s here the track makes a leap in intensity that seems impossible before it happens, with the band running back through the riffs with a throttling drive and energy.
“Speedway” starts a little bit quieter but features the same sort of complex rhythms and discordant chords as the verse portions of the previous song, both harkening back heavily to post-hardcore records like Slint’s SPIDERLAND and the Dismemberment Plan’s EMERGENCY AND I. But where Slint was openly anxious and fatalistic, and where the Dismemberment Plan was sensitive and ultimately uplifting, black midi is aggressively cryptic, speaking in almost abstract poetry but delivering it as a fevered pastor would to a congregation. The third track, “Reggae,” is the perfect example of this as well, as the track reaches a harrowing and noisy conclusion while Greep manically yelps into the microphone about un-ironed shirts and hourglasses.
The brazen opacity of Greep’s lyrics only add to the mystique surrounding a somewhat mysterious and reclusive band. A cast of very young-looking misfits from the UK who didn’t talk much and played music that was very clearly heavily practiced and learned, as the almost freeform rhythms found in some passages are simply not really feasible to just bang out on the fly. The layered, dense guitars found in the low points of “Near DT, MI” represent one of the album’s more memorable offerings, those guitars slowly building up to a blistering conclusion, powered at first by labored screams from bassist Cameron Picton and then by a maelstrom of shrill synthesizers and various noise elements. On “Western,” guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin seems to be channeling some vintage Johnny Marr, playing arpeggiated and enveloping parts that set the song’s atmosphere and tone—a sort of epic centerpiece running over eight minutes and even going to far as to whip out a rogue banjo for the song’s peaceful and very beautiful conclusion; these songs have clearly been labored over in practice rooms for many, many hours.
Of course, things cannot stay too peaceful for too long. One long track begets another, as the welcome respite and relative serenity of “Western” is followed by “Of Schlagenheim,” which comes swaggering right out of the gate with a tightly swung cavernous drum part and shoegaze-like guitar tones. The song features a furiously throbbing synthesizer before giving way to another hypnotic interlude, setting the stage for further chaos in the song’s back half. It’s here that I finally will address the elephant in the room: drummer Morgan Simpson. The man is a whirling dervish behind the kit, resembling the Dismemberment Plan’s Joe Easley at his lows and Death Grips’ Zach Hill at his highs, possessing an almost inhuman energy and precision of time. “Of Schlagenheim” is one of his finer moments on the record, but Simpson is without a doubt one of the most important assets this band; a drummer of this caliber is legitimately irreplaceable, a central pillar of their sound and the key that unlocks a rhythmic depth that most groups never dare to strive for.
Now, I must allow for full disclosure: I had the privilege, and I truly mean distinct privilege, to see black midi live at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, and I have tickets to see them again in November. black midi knows how to control a crowd through their music better than any band I’ve just about ever seen. They entered to an intentionally overblown bass mix of a Charli XCX track, and within three songs the group had the entire crowd in a full-throated mosh through mud and standing water before the clock even struck 2 PM on a Sunday. The fluid state of the band’s music allows for a controlled emotional pace over the pit the likes of which I don’t think I’d ever seen in person before them. The degree to which I, and I believe the crowd around me as well, were able to become mentally, physically, and emotionally consumed by the music and driven to movement and action by the music gave the record a context that had been missing from my listening experiences prior.
The album closes as it opens: with a bang. “Ducter” is one of the album’s best songs, starting with a rhythmically lurching riff that would feel at home on a Rush record, and Simpson giving a drum performance that honestly might fit in too (I just compared this guy to Neil Fucking Peart, can I literally compliment him any higher). Greep gives a vocal performance that you can imagine him singing with a sort of deranged but confident smile, repeating that “they could not break me” as the song drops into a Tool-like crescendo passage that roars to a peak and then back into the initial riff even heavier than before The whole track eventually climaxes in one last blowout noise passage in which it sounds like guitars are broken and vocal chords torn.
Before seeing black midi live, I thought this was a top five album of the year. After seeing them, this album claims my AotY. This record is by no means for the faint of heart; if you listen to this record and enjoy it, do whatever you can to try to see these guys in person. SCHLAGENHEIM is daring, exciting, and cutting-edge, and I can’t wait to see what the boys in black midi do next.