What should rock music sound like in 2019? Its status as a cultural vanguard in music has taken a backseat to other popular genres, but if mainstream rock is going to be represented by the likes of Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5, and even Greta Van Fleet, it’s little wonder some listeners tend to get cynical about contemporary rock. The only solution is to dig into the underground in the hopes of hitting gold. Enter Black Midi.
The rock quartet from England formed a little over a year ago when they graduated from the BRIT School of Performing Arts and Technology —the testing battle grounds for other established artists like Adele and Ed Sheeran. The members are still very young, as shown in their live KEXP performance from earlier this year, but they possess a hunger that seems to have left other bands once their success succeeded their creativity.
Many gigs later — including a session with legendary Can singer, Damo Suzuki — they attracted enough attention in their local circles to sign a deal with Rough Trade records.
Black Midi mostly work within the math rock genre — rock music that employs idiosyncratic rhythms and melodies with oddball time signatures. But the band also employs the quiet-loud dynamic that alternative rock is renowned for, along with some post-punk elements from bands like Killing Joke and the Fall, bursts of squelching noise (a la Big Black), and to make things more interesting, some experimental krautrock thrown in for good measure.
Their debut outing, Schlagenheim, is surely one of the most exciting rock records of recent memory. While you won’t hear anything that sounds like it might land on mainstream radio, it is remarkable just how immediately gratifying and accessible the album is.
The opening, “953,” sets the stage perfectly for what is to come. The song immediately gallops through a spastic rhythm that sounds like it might burst apart at any moment, but soon gains composure and shifts into something more coherent for the headbangers. It’s this element of danger permeating through most of the record that lends its mystique and uniqueness.
Other songs like the eight-minute centerpiece track, “Western,” almost seem to employ a progressive side that switches between two main riffs.
Arguably, the element holding all this together is the precise and monstrous drumming from Morgan Simpson who anchors the freewheeling energy around him with an ease that would make other drummers sweat nervously. It’s what makes a song like “Speedway” so endlessly playable, and other songs like “Near DT, MI” so hectic, yet controlled.
True, not everyone is going to appreciate what Black Midi strive to accomplish, but it’s hard to deny that they’re not doing something to bring back an air of freshness to a genre that seems to be eating itself out of fresh ideas. Schlagenheim is how rock music should sound in 2019.
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