I’ll admit this at the beginning—I have no idea what black midi sounds like. After seeing them at South By Southwest this year, I tried, and failed, to nail it down: “They’re simultaneously an art rock act, a post-punk group, a noise band, a free-jazz ensemble, and an improvisational outfit that’s somehow both tight and loose at the same time.” I later described them as “Parquet Courts-meets-a-free-jazz-combo-with-Donny-from-The Wild Thornberries-as-a-lead-singer” and meant it as a compliment. A friend who disliked their KEXP session from Iceland Airwaves 2018 (one of the only videos of the band available online until recently) said it sounded like two layered Korn songs mixed by a pretentious art school kid.
Neither description is any closer to the actual truth. Now that I’ve listened to listen to the British foursome’s debut record, Schlagenheim, some 30-odd times, I still can’t do any better of a job describing these nine maniacal songs. I don’t have the music theory background to even begin to parse out the record’s absurdly difficult guitar technique or insanely complex time signatures and write about it with any sort of authority. Hell, if Ryley Walker couldn’t do it, how could I?
There is so much we don’t know about black midi’s music. But here’s what I do know: this is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.
It may be hard to write about, but it’s a record you feel more so than anything else. Case in point: First track “953” features one of the hardest hitting lead guitar riffs in recent memory, an opening salvo that makes you want to drop everything and go run a mile—something I actually did, resulting in my fastest time ever. Within mere seconds of hitting play on their debut album, Geordie Greep and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin make their case as two of our most inventive contemporary guitarists, all while you try your hardest to keep time with a beat that will still elude you after 10 listens.
Alternating between brutally loud explosions of sound and slowed-down quieter ruminations, Schlagenheim surprises at every turn, never settling into a predictable flow. Cathartic crescendos arrive out of nowhere—“Speedway” is a masterclass on how to consistently deny the listener what they’re waiting for. Greep’s vocals are frequently indecipherable—he might as well be singing in a different language altogether. If their mission was to release a truly unpredictable collection of songs, they nailed it.
Schlagenheim is an album with few faults, but if there ever was one, it’s that the recording doesn’t showcase Morgan Simpson’s frenzied drumming to its fullest extent. Simpson is without a doubt the most talented member of an uber-gifted group, already quickly gaining a reputation as being his generation’s best drummer, even winning the UK’s Young Drummer of the Year competition in 2014 at age 15. See the band live and it’s hard to disagree; he’s an absolute animal behind the kit, one of the most athletic and virtuosic percussionists you’ll ever see. It’s hard to look away.
And that was the biggest fear going into this record: How could their incredible live sets work on an album? While everything gets dialed back a bit, Simpson’s drumming in particular (though he does get quite a few moments in the spotlight, on “Western” and “Years Ago,” especially), these nine songs are still a wonder to behold. The studio recordings allow Schlagenheim’s quieter moments to shine a little brighter than onstage, like on the tail end of “Western,” an eight-plus minute epic that features banjo in the background, a gorgeous moment on an album that warps all beauty into some distorted Dadaist take on an Aphex Twin album cover.
There’s a high barrier to entry for Schlagenheim, a record by a band who refuses to meet you halfway. Pedantic and pretentious all the way through, Schlagenheim showcases why black midi are generationally great instrumentalists despite our inability to follow what they’re doing and why. Schlagenheim is like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica in this way—it doesn’t always sound aurally pleasing, and it’s often tough to keep up, but it rewards those who try. By the end of “Ducter’s” anarchic pandemonium, you won’t know what hit you, but you’ll find yourself quickly returning to “953” for another go around of an album that showcases some of the most talented musicians around, coalescing behind an experimental, genre-less and extremely noisy sound to exceptional results.
Schlagenheim is beyond weird. Schlagenheim is a legitimate one of a kind record. Schlagenheim is a masterpiece.