black midi are one of the most celebrated rock bands of our modern times and would surely be taking up even more column inches should their fellow Brixton Windmill “alumni” and close pals Black Country, New Road not be attracting and sharing a lot of the spotlight, too. That, mixed with other fantastic rock bands bubbling away in the UK – see caroline, Squid and with a bit of a sideways stretch into pop sensibilities Jockstrap, Sorry and Wet Leg – plus the huge resurgence of quantity and, most importantly, quality in the country’s output of post-punk as well, has meant that for all the coverage rightly attributed to the trio (and on-stage de facto quartet, with the inclusion of Seth Evans on keyboards), black midi are not quite as well known in musical circles as they should be.
It’s surprising to me, for example, that people I know as having wide-ranging taste and are still actively engaged in contemporary music – both listening to new records and actively going to gigs – still sometimes haven’t listened to a single note from anything by black midi.
In another time, the band would be all that anyone would be talking about. I suppose this is indicative of an extraordinarily healthy UK music scene at the moment, then – albeit as the foundations and structures that keep it alive are steadily eroded through lack of investment, actively destroyed by greedy landlordism and/or ignorantly ignored by out of touch governments who only see ‘culture’ as the opera, classical music and little else – but there must be something in the back of the black midi member’s collective minds that occasionally curses the fact that they must share a stage with other present-day luminaries when only a few years ago they would be singled out and seen as generational musical savants.
That’s not to say that the internet isn’t short of much fawning over the band. Over the course of four years black midi have released three full-length albums, five non-album singles, two EPs of covers, a strange blend of audiobook and jam session, and six live albums, all but one of which have been released officially on some physical format. Focusing on those three albums, though, each has been met with surprise, jubilation, and pages upon pages of words extolling the genius of the core trio – both their skill at composition and a rare focus (in this era of reviewing and fan reflection) on each member’s incredible technical skill and musical virtuosity. Those pages spill over from ecstatic love and appreciation for the band into an epiphanic veneration of the band’s existence and the boundary-less way they approach the medium.
Despite my love of the three records (and all that extra caboodle, too), I had somehow not seen the band live. I am someone who thinks they are incredible but am strangely almost equally interested in the music scene’s reception of them. They are, let’s be straight, not an ‘easy’ band to listen to. Their music and sense of artistic adventure does not lend themselves to Joe Public. And yet they seem to have captured the hearts and minds of many music fans who would most readily identify themselves as indie rock fans; maybe some flirting with math rock, some with a little post-rock, and perhaps even more liking rock bands that are more likely to play an arena than a scuzzy pub in the least desirable quarter of one of the UK’s many city centres. We’ll get back to that later on.
The reception to the band has been fascinating and while I maintain that even more people should be listening to and discussing them, the pieces written hark back to the indie, rock, punk, and metal coverage I’ve read of 60s, 70s and 80s bands, reminiscent of coverage of the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, or David Bowie. There is a fascination with how they learnt their instruments, how and where formed, how they rehearse, how they compose, how they record, and so on and so forth. The past, present and future cult of personality is alive and well, yes, but the focus on the band as a band is both refreshing and curious. Why black midi? I suppose my only answer is that they are challenging, they do incorporate elements of genres that are not only seen as older and ‘classic’, but also as technically arduous and unusual for a contemporary band to attempt, let alone excel at. The members too, in interviews I have seen, are clearly all highly musically literate – not only in their own ability with their respective instruments, but also highly cognisant of music theory, as well as having very wide-ranging taste with deep understanding, love and knowledge of keystone touching points across multiple genres (both expected and not). I urge you to watch their What’s in My Bag? episode on the legendary American indie music shop Amoeba’s YouTube channel to get a taste of what I mean.
It is against this backdrop that I noted that the band were doing a three day ‘residency’ of Village Underground in London. Each evening would be centred around one of their released full-length albums: Schlagenheim, Cavalcade and Hellfire.
I managed to snag tickets and it was only days before that I realised a fourth date had been added, unusually before the main run. This date sounds like it was crazy – with a mix of numerous Paul Williams covers, and star cuts from across the three albums, as well as two completely new songs that most who were present couldn’t identify as ever having been played before. Setlist.fm seemingly backs this assertion up!
Night One: Schlagenheim
The Village Underground is heaving. Unsurprising due to each night being sold out, and especially so for this evening, as Schlagenheim probably remains many people’s favourite record of the band’s. It’s the record that announced them to the world, of course. It’s also the one that goes hardest – the album that it can easily argued is black midi at their most direct.
It’s really nice it is so busy so early – and this repeats across all three nights – so that the single support act each evening receives the attention they deserve. This time around it’s Industry Poet. Isaiah Hull hails from Manchester and his accent rings through the room. He has an immediate presence and likability. I had caught him once before supporting caroline at EartH in Hackney. Blurring the lines, or rather, taking to heart the fact that rap-lyricism and performance is a form of poetry, Industry Poet blasts us with rhyme, rhythm, and reality. He’s joined on stage this evening, unlike the time before, and while some live beats is a cool addition, I feel like his project is so singular and individual that Isaiah was more impactful before, despite being in a more cavernous venue. Here he does still capture the attention and admiration of many, though, surely converting many to his sparse instrumentals and slick wordplay. An artist on the up, that’s for sure, it won’t be long before Industry Poet’s name is taking up more space on magazine pages.
black midi are introduced with a pre-recorded announcement that plays into the imagery they have used to advertise the residency – an obvious, clunky Photoshop job of the trio’s heads grafted on to ridiculously body-builder come wrestler bodies. As the Tannoy and lights blast loud, the band take to the stage to rapturous applause before the sound system bludgeons us with ‘Suavemente’ by Elvis Crespo. This is all in stark contrast to the booming classical music that was played prior to the venue’s main lights going dark.
The band blasted through an almighty setlist, consisting of – you guessed it – principally tracks from Schlagenheim, including ‘953’ which was labelled as ‘359’ on their own setlists on stage, as they played the titular section backwards, as well as fan favourites such as ‘Ducter’, ‘Speedway’, and ‘bmbmbm’. At the end of ‘Reggae’ the band had to cut the song short, for bassist Cam (aka “The Machine”) to ask the audience to take two steps back and slightly “calm down”.
Although I might have guessed a large amount of black midi’s audience would be young, I was still taken aback by how overwhelmingly very young they were. There were far fewer moustache-twiddling music aficionados there (hi!), or “true” older rock ’n ’roll fans who see the trio/quartet as a saving grace or throwback from a golden era when rock ruled the airwaves and the charts. No… The audience were by and large all the 16-25 age bracket. That in and of itself is obviously no problem – I have zero issue with that. Except it quickly became apparent that many there were not well versed in gig etiquette, nor were there fully to focus on the band and the music played. Some absolutely were, let me be honest and clear. But it very soon became obvious that the evening was going to be very much seen and enjoyed through the prism of what an audience member or the audience en masse might do or not do.
I have definitely headbanged along to Schlagenheim and there is no doubt it is an energetic, nay frenetic, record. However, I never really expected to see a circle pit that took up a good 50% of the venue open up with security looking on helpless and simply launching new, sealed water bottles in the general direction of the centre. I’m not against a pit, lord knows, but when the attention of those in it and those outside it becomes focused on the churn and swirl, rather than the band up on stage, I think you must reflect that the balance is off. That said, I’m so adept to filtering that stuff out – unless it clicks that something majorly serious is occurring – that I did manage to keep me eye largely on Geordie Greep (guitars, vocals), Cameron Picton (bass, vocals), and Morgan Simpson (drums).
The band played two tracks from Hellfire and one from Cavalcade, as well as several other choice cuts, including their opener, ‘Funk’, ‘Crow’s Perch’ and a new song, ‘Magician’ (more on this one later). Overall, it was a fantastic setlist and a wonderful performance. London was cold across all three nights, but that evening was especially freezing, and the contrast between inside the Village Underground and outside was stark. I had fully expected to be blown away by black midi live, and despite thoroughly enjoying myself, I hadn’t been. Was that the band or was that the audience’s fault?
Night Two: Cavalcade
The second evening of this black midi marathon saw me arrive for the date highlighting the band’s sophomore LP, which is the record I personally rate the least, if only by a sliver, as it remains part of their triumvirate of three exquisite albums. Cavalcade just never quite enraptured me to quite the same extent as the other two.
The night also saw a new support enter the fray, this time in the form of Tony Njoku, a British-Nigerian electronic music producer and songwriter from London. His sparse, simplistic, and short tracks manage, despite their diminutive runtime, to paint life’s largest emotions across their sonic tapestry. His songs focus on the fragility of manhood and the nuances of the psyche – all through the prism of experimental, pared-down fusions of RnB and minimal electronica, with a decidedly floral overtone to the song-titles and metaphorical imagery employed. With a voice glimmering over these inventive, unobtrusive instrumentals, that shifts between husky, soulful semi-spoken word to a honey-like, surprising falsetto.
Much like the evening before, the audience is a little restless during the start of Njoku’s set, but by the time he bids his farewell there are plenty around the whole venue applauding and wishing he had a little longer to play.
As the same intro as the previous night rings out across Village Underground, black midi make their way on stage to Rosalía’s ‘SAOKO’, hyping both the band and the audience. Their set is another hour plus that is studded with musical virtuosity, often leaving me and other people in the crowd shaking our head in disbelief. Dutifully, given this evening’s focus is Cavalcade, we are treated to thrilling renditions of fantastic tunes from the record such as ‘John L’, ‘Marlene Dietrich’ and ‘Ascending Forth’ as well as a slew of others. Midway through the set we’re also treated to a brief cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe (In the Air)’ before they blur into one of two Hellfire tracks, ‘Welcome to Hell’.
The audience is once again absolutely insane – a throng of bouncing bodies, limbs akimbo, drinks sprayed and spilled, all tightly woven into a circling pit. It’s not as uninhibited as Schlagenheim’s night, but it’s still unruly and to add to the mix this selection of audience members seem to enjoy shouting out to the band far more – requesting songs, screaming love or ‘banter’ and unintelligible nonsense besides. They’re not quite as attention-grabbing, but I’m still constantly aware of others’ presence during black midi’s entire set, and I can’t help but think that there are a few knowing glances shared between the band on stage. The quarter end this evening’s set with ‘Slow’, walking off the stage somewhat more abruptly than they did, or will do, on the other nights.
Night Three: Hellfire
The third and final night of the residency ‘proper’ was to celebrate black midi’s most recently released recorded output, their third LP, Hellfire. It may have been a trick of the imagination, but the Village Underground feels even fuller and more cramped than on the two previous evenings. The place is fit to bust.
Firstly, we are introduced to the first and only international artist supporting black midi on this string of dates. Anysia Kym comes to us all the way from New York City, playing a type of sound collage, mixing beats with samples and occasional live acoustic guitar and vocals. Despite the intriguing premise, Kym’s performance fails to capture my imagination, and barely my attention. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the crowd, who react to the music in a much more uniformly consistent way than the other two supports. There are clearly those present who are aware – and fans – of Kym’s work, while others quickly begin to sway and even eventually dance to the performance.
Days afterward, I note that recorded output features none other than MIKE guesting and when listening I can hear distinct comparisons to such artists as Pink Siifu and keiyaA. But I’m afraid that live I was personally left cold and rather bemused, with a set that felt lacking in momentum and passion, with moments that came across as genuinely clunky. Kym left the stage with a loud roar of applause and appreciate screams, though, so I can only hope I see them live again at some point and have a different reaction.
black midi take to the stage for the final time on this focused run of dates, now with the customary announcement, before taking to the stage in a hail of feedback, before launching into ‘John L’, quickly followed by Greep bringing the band to a quieter, slower pace, not customary for the song, and instead of the expected vocal he welcomes Harry Hill of all people on stage as a very special guest, where the band and Hill proceed to perform ‘I Like It’ by Cardi B as a bizarre, pinch-yourself-that-this-is-really-happening interlude.
Tonight’s set is a long one – both a love letter to Hellfire as well as a victory lap for the residency. As well as all the best material from their latest LP, including the incomparable ‘Sugar/Tzu’, we are treated to two covers, a cut from Black Sabbath (‘Symptom of the Universe’) and The Doors (‘Riders On the Storm’), and also a little interpolation of ‘I Believe’ by Caroline Polachek for good measure. It’s a dizzying, flash-bang of talent, unabashedly mixing a ton of natural ability and skill, a soupçon of arrogance, and world-beating performance into a great melting pot that one can only admit is irresistibly entertaining. A track from Live Fire, not on the aforementioned record, is also played – and they rattle off ‘Lumps’ to great aplomb, like so many before it.
A mainstay across all three nights is new track ‘Magician’. Across the performances it quickly becomes my favourite black midi song of all. It will surely become another calling card for the band, and I can only hope that it definitely makes it onto LP #4. Instantly arresting, it bears all the hallmarks of the finest compositions black midi have put to tape, but there’s a personal angle to the song – a fire, if you will – that is sometimes lacking from others. I’m not advocating for every black midi song to follow suit, or admonishing tracks composed before. If you haven’t been paying attention, I’m quite the fan already! But, this connection feels special, and makes ‘Magician’ feel remarkably potent.
On the subject of connection, a criticism one could make of the band is that there does seem to be a barrier between themselves and their audience. I’m never a huge fan of bands ceaselessly talking in between tracks, but aside from one or two glib comments and a long, hilarious list of thank you’s each night, delivered by Greep, they don’t really address the baying crowd.
Here’s my guess as to why. . . black midi dislike most of their fans. I certainly do.
Each night, attention has been ceaselessly pulled by the audience as a whole, or individually, the loudest, dumbest constantly changing member sought the spotlight every couple of minutes. Schlagenheim night saw the band need to ask the audience to step back, chill out, and look after one another; Cavalcade night saw them fend off relentless screams and requests; and Hellfire night saw a crowd dismissive of the increasingly progressive nature of many tracks from that record, with distinct chat evident in the lulls and quieter moments of said songs.
Upon their final thank you to their crew and the venue, Geordie thanks the audience, referring to them as a “bunch of fucking idiots!” Many there receive this with whoops, taking it as sharp-tongued irony or sarcasm; and while there’s no doubt that black midi deal in that sort of humour relentlessly – be it in their very music, how they present themselves and even in interview – there seems to be a barbed tone in that farewell phrase, to my ear. Perhaps I’m searching for it, having already served as judge, jury, and executioner for the collective audience across the trio of evenings, but it sounds real to me.
black midi are an extraordinary band, worthy of all of mine and the maelstrom of other voices across print and the internet lavishing praise upon them. I implore you to see them live. They didn’t quite knock my socks off in the way I thought they would, but I do think the audience really impacted on my enjoyment of the three dates at Village Underground. I go to enough gigs to know that this isn’t me aging and/or forgetting how a hyped audience behaves. This unusual melange of fans following this unique, strange band, is insufferable. But, shining through, the trio/quartet [make your choice] are unpredictable, brilliant and altogether spellbinding.