Black MIDI is an esoteric genre of music where composers attempt to overload their computers using as many notes as possible, regardless if the end result is listenable or even playable. Anyone on YouTube in the early 2010s would have likely come across a MIDI version of the Touhou Project song “U.N. Owen Was Her”, erroneously named “Death Waltz” after the John Stump ‘composition‘, with 88,000 notes. Later compositions could cross 1 million notes, with some allegedly going up to the billions.
Listening to Black Midi is a lot like listening to the group’s namesake. They are a band of talented BRIT School attendees that, much like Black MIDI itself, found themselves with a niche but devoted audience. Until now, they had yet to release a full-length album and had barely formed before a trip to the studio with producer Dan Carey, who liked the “boom boom boom” song they did. (That song appears in re-recorded form as the antepenultimate track of the record.)
One Rough Trade signing later, the band is seemingly ubiquitous and with glowing profiles. It’s weird that Black Midi, of all bands, would get this aggressive of a push, but in an era when theoretically inaccessible records like Have a Nice Life‘s Deathconsciousness (2008) gain cult followings, it’s only natural that record labels would eventually come to where those kinds of fans can be found.
Almost immediately, Black Midi delivers on the promise of their live recordings. “953” begins with a ⅝ riff that could easily anchor an entirely different song but is quickly abandoned for a slower segment that Queens of the Stone Age could have conceivably written. Frontman Geordie Greep moans inscrutably before another break into sludgy noise. Then there’s a cacophonous breakdown. Then there’s a double-time section. Then that opening riff comes back again. Then the second riff. Then it’s over. The entirety of Schalgenheim eventually turns into “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” until the 43 minutes are up.
Therein lies the biggest issue with Schlagenheim: it’s a series of devastatingly cool moments without any emotional core to ground it. The best example is the title track, which bounces between atmospheric interludes and unhinged screeching but does both extremes no favors. There are so many ideas (and lyrics like “I dream of a woman with the teeth of a raven and the hand of a porcupine”) that they cancel each other out. The other claustrophobic song is “Years Ago”, which ruins a beautiful polyrhythmic piano riff with more screaming antics. The balance between vulnerability and chaos defines the better indie music of the decade (think Protomartyr, early Ought, and Iceage) and it’s one that Black Midi, seemingly on principle, refuses to hit.
As a result Black Midi’s songs are weirdly best at their most conventional, especially on “Near DT,MI”, a linear crescendo into the most satisfying climax on the record. This song is actually about something, which is unusual for this record. “There’s lead in the water… are you losing your mind?” bassist Cameron Picton screams, and there’s little room for interpretation. Meanwhile, “Speedway” is suspiciously laid-back compared to the rest of the record, it’s still compelling where the more extravagant passages occasionally feel numbing.
Ironically, the eight-minute song “Western” is the highlight, even as it’s another song that changes genres on a whim and has baffling lyrics about anorexic children. When the band goes into Talking Heads territory halfway through, drummer Morgan Simpson — the most captivating performer in their live sessions — gets to lead the band. Dan Carey’s mostly dry production also becomes more lively, steadily adding overdubbed instruments until the whole band suddenly goes back to its opening movement.
Closing track “Ducter” is the most lyrically fascinating on the album. Greep depicts an encounter with a therapist trying to psychoanalyze an unwilling patient — “he laid out his theories, every one that he got… every quote just eats itself with a new perspective.” Greep’s character says “diagnose if you wish, but please first take your hands off your dick,” a rare laugh-out-loud moment in a record that could use more humor. This being Black Midi, the song eventually devolves into a crescendo where Greep, by now sounding halfway between Robert Plant and Gollum, chants “He could not break me” as the band threatens to break around him. When the band does, the momentum peters out.
Technically proficient but emotionally shallow, Schlagenheim too often feels like feeding all mathcore and post-punk into a neural network and releasing the result. For some, that’s why they’ll love it. On talent alone, Black Midi exceeds the hype, but it takes more than just raw talent to make a compelling record. There’s no doubt they’ll mature, but for now, their restlessness results in both the most promising and exasperating record of 2019.