Black Midi review – punk-jazz power is a recipe for success

St John at Hackney, London
The London rockers pack a punch with a thunderous recital of their new album. Shame about the sound…

A sense of frustration hangs over this Black Midi gig, disguised as early evening light filtered through stained glass. In part, it’s down to the times. Rather than celebrate the release of their expansive second album, Cavalcade, by handing out free tinnitus to fans in some low-ceilinged sweatbox as in the before-times, Black Midi’s vivid, stop-start skronk is unleashed in a recently refurbished east London church.

The ceiling is high, the venue is beautiful and two shows on release day double the attendance, making up for social distancing. Tonight’s vibe is very much gratitude for being out of the house, almost having fun. We all know the moves: scan QR code, beer appears. Someone is wearing a cape. “You can have a dance, but stay in your pod,” requests a voice over the PA. A handful of people take up the offer to jerk around.

White monitors and white speakers descend from the white heavens; the band themselves are playfully dressed in chef’s whites and aprons, as though they just got off duty in Pizza Express. Justifiably bored by normal rock band visuals, Black Midi routinely represent themselves as astronauts, firefighters or similar; poster boys for an entire outlying sector of aggressive, complicated music with little patience for the limitations of four-square convention.

You could peg their success – their first album, Schlagenheim, was shortlisted for the Mercury prize and ranked high in numerous 2019 end-of-year lists – to the culture. Theirs is music of fidgety overload, echoing a half-decade in which the endless supply of bad news and the digital oversaturation of daily life results in a constant state of dissonance. The London band did name themselves after an obscure gamer-anime remix genre, black MIDI, in which hemi-demi-semi-quavers are crowbarred into an electronic score so that its visual representation turns black. “Impossible music” is another term; so busy, no human could play it.

Alternatively, you could see this outfit as part of a much older continuum that has its roots in progressive rock and Captain Beefheart, jazz and the rock-classical crossover. Perhaps the most egregious of the evening’s missed opportunities is that this prog-adjacent lot don’t somehow work St John’s vast, gleaming pipe organ into their set. (It does burble away as people take their seats.)

The acoustics of this atypical space are made for awe: Black Midi should work here. Tonight, though, the sound is diabolical, an inchoate boom that robs Cavalcade of detail and nuance. We begin audibly enough with a romp through the 20th Century Fox ident, indicating, you assume, cinematic drama to come. Instead, the celluloid melts.

Two tracks released before the album’s release fare relatively well in the fug, not least because they have hooks. Chondromalacia Patella (runner’s knee, in case you’re wondering) is dextrous, then head-banging, math-rock, with an elephantine call of saxophone. The parallels here with their friends and collaborators Black Country, New Road are plain. But the filigree, the work of keyboard player Seth Evans, chiefly, becomes subsumed.

Watch the video for Black Midi’s John L.

John L is another math-rock funk-out, highlighting the brilliance of Black Midi’s drummer and the exuberance of their horn player. Both the drummer, Morgan Simpson (tea towels hung across his kit), and the saxophonist, Kaidi Akinnibi (stripy apron), are such a rich resources of energy and exactitude that you could plug them into server banks and mine clean cryptocurrency off them. The band are at their very best when they are most punk-jazz tonight.

Often, though, they’re a blur. We get a smattering of non-album tracks and most of Cavalcade; recorded during lockdown, it consequently dials down the debut album’s improvisation and dials up more cogent writing.

The church’s sonics suit some of the band’s calmer new directions. Marlene Dietrich, for one, is an actual song, crooned by singing guitarist Geordie Greep. How to take it? Greep’s overwrought delivery seems to zigzag between sincerity and sarcasm. A random sailor’s hornpipe highlights the band’s worst instincts – the larking japery that makes them title songs Hogwash and Balderdash. You could see Greep walking into a pub and asking the stout yeoman of the bar for some mead in air quotes.

Black Midi’s worship of tangents and allergy to groove do irk, but ultimately the din is no disaster; part of the fun of Black Midi is the exhilaration of their churn, the feeling of being deftly pummelled by barely comprehensible forces. In their closing track, Ascending Forth, they hit a kind of peak. The track marries this bittersweet musicality to an endorphin rush of a beatific crescendo. “Everyone loves ascending fourths,” sings Greep, tenderly.


Kitty Empire

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