Croydon performing arts institution the Brit School has long been a major pop bugbear: criticised by everyone from Arctic Monkeys to Ed Sheeran, charged with turning out a certain kind of artist. That’s perhaps a reductive view, but it certainly seems to major in earnest, pop-facing vocalists, from Adele to Jessie J to Leona Lewis. If nothing else, the swift rise of Black Midi puts paid to that idea: Brit-schooled they may be, but pop-facing they are not.
In interviews, the quartet have discussed their love of 20th century classical music from Bartók to Alfred Schnittke, and Schlagenheim is an album that waits a mere three minutes and 23 seconds before hitting you with its first burst of free improvisation: you can tell it’s free improvisation because, for some reason, rock bands always sound exactly the same when they indulge in free improvisation, the effect of unburdening themselves from the shackles of structure and melody and allowing their imaginations to drift without limitation invariably resulting in a very particular kind of clattery racket.
It views songwriting as a matter of riffs, dynamics and noise rather than verses, choruses and tunes, and inhabits a space where prog rock at its most blaring (very obviously the crunching, metallic version of King Crimson found on 1974’s Red, but also the really skronky bits of Van der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts and Godbluff) meets a lot of stuff appended by the prefix “post”: the herky-jerky brand of post-punk exemplified by early XTC, the ponderous guitar arpeggios of post-rock, the raw-throated vocals and pummelling guitars of post-hardcore. You can add to this mix frontman Geordie Greep, whose peculiar array of vocal mannerisms and tics often leave him sounding remarkably – if presumably unwittingly – like noted explorer of the sonic outer limits Shirley Bassey.
Based on that description alone, you may well be able to decide whether you’re going to find Schlagenheim a thrilling détournement of tired rock orthodoxy or the kind of thing that you’d prefer to get as far away from as possible. You don’t have to be some kind of parka-sporting, Weller-mopped dumbo, steadfast in the belief that Liam Gallagher’s last album represents the apogee of Real Music, to occasionally understand the latter impulse.
At their least appealing, there’s no doubt that Black Midi can sound pretty pleased with themselves. Bmbmbm features a one-note bass riff interspersed with propulsive explosions of noise, over which Greep offers variations on the phrase “She moves with a purpose” in a succession of different voices, from drawl to gibber. It’s the kind of idea that Damo Suzuki-era Can might have fruitfully explored – indeed, the band have backed him in concert – and bears a certain resemblance to the early Butthole Surfers track Something, although you struggle to locate any of Can’s warmth, wit, funk or soul here, or the Butthole Surfers’ lysergically enhanced sense of fear and loathing. Or, indeed, what the track is supposed to be communicating. Without any of that, it’s hard to avoid a sensation of po-faced seriousness, of music that exists largely in order to make its authors and fans feel superior to the hoi-polloi with their risible dependence on melodies and lyrics.
It’s a failing, but it’s far from the whole story. The early hype around the band has come replete with a lot of Emerson, Lake & Palmer-ish stuff about their technical virtuosity and dexterous musicianship. This occasionally finds its expression in showily complex flurries of widdly-woo guitar, but it comes into its own when, led by drummer Morgan Simpson, they lock into a groove that manages to be hypnotically repetitious while constantly shifting and changing, as on opener 953 – a riff that initially sounds like the needle on a grunge record sticking, subject to a succession of shifts in tempo and style – or Western, which boasts a vaguely country influence in its circular guitar pattern. There are a succession of moments where the striking juxtapositions deliver a really powerful kick, like a film cutting sharply between contrasting scenes: Of Schlagenheim suddenly divests itself of its angularity and becomes a gently beguiling drift two minutes in; Years Ago shifts from motorik pulse to screaming noise and back again.
The best moments are those that feel visceral rather than cerebral: the gradual ratcheting of tension on Reggae, the relentless surges of Near DT, MI. As a whole, Schlagenheim is an imperfect, intriguing debut: behind the overheated prose lurks a young, self-conscious band who clearly aren’t as fully formed as the hype suggests, who are still capable of misdirecting their undoubted talent and haven’t quite clicked that intelligence is best worn lightly in the balance between art and heart. But it’s still early days. Greep has suggested they’ll be “unrecognisable” in two years’ time: for all its flaws, Schlagenheim is promising enough to suggest that watching them develop could be fascinating.
This week Alexis listened to
The Humble Bee & Offthesky: For Her Breath Is on All That Hath Life
From a forthcoming collaborative album, All Other Voices Gone, Only Yours Remain, ambient experimentation where crackling samples and live instruments conjure up a kind of becalmed eeriness.