Smoke and mirrors or riveting experimental rock? Evaluating Black Midi ahead of their March PhilaMOCA gig.
Any time a band is introduced as “mysterious,” boasting “minimal online presence” and a “came out of nowhere” backstory, my bullshit detector goes off. Either this is marketing smoke and mirrors, possibly designed to obscure sketchy information somebody is embarrassed over (ahem, Superorganism), or it’s an honest description of an impossibly lazy and stuck-in-the-past artist who happens to be privileged enough to have influential connections in their corner (looking at you, Parquet Courts).
I don’t bring this up to suggest that London’s Black Midi are themselves bullshit, or sketchy, or stuck-in-the-past, but more to explain my initial skepticism when I read the description on R5 Productions’ announcement of their upcoming gig at PhilaMOCA. Their debut 7″ single sold out “almost instantly”…but, like, 250 copies is not a lot. They’re on an indie label run by a guy named Dan Carey who, by the way, happens to be a record producer who has worked on songs (hits and otherwise) by Django Django, Bat For Lashes, Sia, and was producer and co-writer of Kylie Minogue’s 2003 banger “Slow” — which in and of itself would make a statue of him in the foyer of some London club not inappropriate — all of which is to say, “indie” is relative and this guy backing these upstart artists probably goes a long way.
The bigger question here: so what? Why does any of this matter? Is the music any good? And having not been fortunate enough to travel and see them in person at Windmill Brixton or Iceland Airwaves, we really only have two songs to evaluate and answer this query: Black Midi’s debut single, a chugging piece of wiry experimental guitar rock called “bmbmbm” that builds from a tense power chord rhythm to a cutting vocal howl, and their synth-oriented new “speedway,” which landed in my news feed yesterday (almost concurrent with the show announcement) care of The Quietus.
In contrast to the unexpected brutality of Black Midi’s debut, this song (released via Rough Trade) is more even-keeled, swiftly dashing forward to a Neu / Kraftwerk style pulse, but with rhythmic and melodic embellishments; sounds in the spirit of mathy Philly experimentalists Palm, or their peers in Mothers. The free-associative lyrics feel somewhat focused on ideas of racing and haste and change, even — “Stock car racer, speedway, old greyhounds, new old ground” — and paired with the treble-heavy, metallic tin of the production, feel pointedly dystopian. Or maybe they’re meaningless placeholder words to fill out the intense instrumental vibes. Who knows?
The YouTube video for the song also collects three remixes found on “speedway”‘s 12” single, the first (by Proc Fiskal) a throwback to turn-of-the-millennium drum and bass, the second (care of Kwake Bass) a choppier audio collage, and the third (from Blanck Mass) a bouncing house / trance number with a kick drum lifted from New Order’s “Blue Monday.”
So what is our conclusion, here: is Black Midi bullshit? We’re going to give that a tentative no, with possibility of revisiting as the band grows and puts more work into the world — they have an interesting, invigorating take on guitar-bass-drums-keys rock that keeps a grip on our attention, and hopefully they have not spent all their ideas and innovations on these first two cuts, and will have more to offer down the line.
In the meantime, get a taste of Black Midi’s high-energy live set below, recorded in Iceland by KEXP and boasting a few additional as-yet-untitled songs; tickets and more information on the PhilaMOCA show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.