black midi’s Music Embraces the Extremes

The band Black Midi makes complex music with one simple goal: “Drama,” said Geordie Greep, their guitarist and lead vocalist, in a video interview from the band’s rehearsal room in London. “We think about how we can make something as exciting as possible and keep the tension there all the time.”

Most of the time, the group’s music arrives as a structured barrage: dissonant riffs, changing rhythms, darkly cryptic texts and textures that can fluctuate between the complexity of the clockwork and the pulverizing of noises. The debut album “Schlagenheim” from 2019 presented a band that had merged the fast precision of prog rock with the die-hard vampires and the aggressively eccentric vocals of post-punk as well as a lot of free jazz and atonality. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize, the British award for musical quality.

On his second album “Cavalcade”, which will be released on Friday, Black Midi expands its music even further. The band takes their dynamics to a new level, juxtaposing cacophony with frugality and tranquility, while Greep and Cameron Picton, the band’s bassist, sing about social and physical decline and the chance that music holds hope. The album even offers a straightforward melodic song: “Marlene Dietrich”, a bossa nova ballad about the familiarity of pop as a refuge in a world of argument. “Cavalcade” is the work of a band determined to defy all routines, including their own.

Black Midi was an early arrival in a wavelet of British bands ignoring the brief attention spans and programmed sounds of mainstream pop. Instead, they present sinewy, practical virtuosity and knotty structures. “What’s going on all over London right now,” said Picton, “is that there is a huge community of really open-minded and close-knit musicians, from full-on jazz to straight-up rock.” And then there’s this whole kind of mishmash in the middle – really exciting stuff. “

Two bold allied bands – Squid and Black Country, New Road – released their debut albums this year. “Black Midi are a one-of-a-kind group,” said Isaac Wood, singer and guitarist for Black Country, New Road. “Once they decide to take a walk on a particular route, they really go all the way, exploring every street.”

Black Midi members met at BRIT School, London’s highly selective high school for the performing arts and technology, whose alumni include Adele, Amy Winehouse and FKA Twigs. The band grew out of jam sessions in the rehearsal rooms of Greep’s school and guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin. They invited drummer Morgan Simpson to join them, and Picton on bass completed the band just before they started playing live shows in 2017.

First, Greep recalled, “It was less about the songs than just playing together until we got into that euphoric zone – just an excuse to play really loud for a long time. But that got kind of boring after a while, so we started making real songs. “

The band members cited numerous musical influences. Simpson, 22, has been playing the drums in his Pentecostal church since he was four and learned the flexibility and drive that come with live gospel music. 21-year-old Picton started out as a guitarist but had a revelation listening to Motown bass lines. Greep, 21, recorded his father’s record collection – progressive rock, classical music, country – but was also fascinated by the incredible effect of scores for cartoons.

Black Midi honed its music with regular appearances at the Windmill, a Brixton pub that has a reputation for promoting innovative bands. The group still ends up in the windmill – most recently with a webcast at Christmas time 2020 to support the club with the pandemic. For this concert, Black Midi merged with Black Country, New Road – billed as Black Midi, New Road – to play Christmas carols, minimalist improvisations and “Born to Run”.

Black midi’s first single was released in 2018: “Bmbmbm”, a sullen, mismatched post-punk vampire intertwined with screams with a found sound and sudden outbursts of full-band bashing. It was on the Speedy Wunderground label, created by producer Dan Carey, who heard the band on the Windmill and would later produce Black Midi’s debut album. “It was like they invented a new form of music,” he said over the phone. “The pace is so fluid, but you’re always in the groove, even when you’re somehow outside. And at the same time incredibly soulful bass lines and amazing lyrics. And put together so violently, so much power. “

Right from the start, the black midi made the audience “stagger”, he added. “It shows that it’s okay to make music that is pretty good and people will like it. There are a lot of people who are intrigued by the outer edges of normal music. “

The band carved their early songs from ideas that emerged in collective jam sessions and reshaped through relentless touring. Material that would end up on his debut album reached global audiences on YouTube with a set filmed during the 2018 Iceland Airwaves Festival for public radio station KEXP in Seattle. For “Schlagenheim” Black Midi expanded its lineup in the studio with synthesizers and guest horn players, who don’t limit themselves to what their members could play on stage. Even so, the album clearly captured the band’s manic energy.

When Black Midi performed “Bmbmbm” on television for the Mercury Prize in 2019, Kwasniewski-Kelvin jumped and fell across the stage. Black Midi went on tour without him, replacing BRIT schoolmates on saxophone and keyboards. In January 2021, Kwasniewski-Kelvin announced that he was taking a break from the band because he was “mentally unwell”. Although he shares some composer credits on “Cavalcade”, he is nowhere to be heard on the album, reducing the band to three core members. “It’s a personal situation he’s going through,” Greep said. “Lets see what happens.”

The pandemic changed the Black Midi songwriting process, moving from collective to individual. The members couldn’t jam together and mostly constructed songs themselves before sharing them with the rest of the group. After long work on demos at home, there were short studio sessions lasting only a few days, in which strings, horns, keyboards and percussion performed alongside the band members.

The work in isolation spawned an introspective side in songs like Picton’s “Diamond Stuff,” which patiently selects a handful of acoustic guitar notes for a full two minutes, nearly half its length. It also gave members the opportunity to experiment with ideas. Greep noted that portions of “Slow” – a song that gleefully denies its title – are based on an octatonic scale often used by Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky; It also borrows a favorite chord change from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini film “8 1/2” before turning in another harmonic direction.

“Cavalcade” opens with “John L”, a troubled, galloping song about a demagogue who comes into town, draws crowds, and makes a “hell of a racket” before being overthrown. Other songs are ambiguous: sometimes sardonic (“Hogwash and Balderdash”) and sometimes terrible (“Dethroned”). Picton said, “The breadth of simply ridiculous things that are happening on a global scale has likely influenced a lot of it, either unconsciously or consciously.”

While preparing to go on tour again, band members have also written songs for a third album. “One thing we all really want to do is improve on the pretty, beautiful, and melodic side of things,” said Simpson. “But also go into town more with the crazy, super intense loud stuff. We really want to try to maximize both goals. “

While the band members talked about their music, the word “crazy” kept coming up. For Black Midi, it’s a point of pride. “I think it’s better to go crazy, go completely crazy and fail than just doing something you know you can,” Greep said. “We just keep going in all directions.”