black midi showcase prodigious talent but without setting the world alight
The conditions under which this review was written were as follows: it was the day after my band had played a show, at midnight I had turned another year older and I had spent most of the day in bed trying piece my head together after the celebrations. What better accompaniment to such a state than the soothing and gentle sounds of black midi. Ahem. Despite my condition I was extremely excited by the prospect of seeing the band, all the more so after their much discussed Mercury Prize performance. This was, after all, a chance to see a band who have in the last year firmly established themselves as one of the darlings of the post-punk revival.
The evening kicked off with SCALPING. Their music is perhaps best described as ‘techno-Mogwai’: intensive and dynamic instrumental electronic-based jams. Their set unfolded like a heady EDM performance, each jam building and climaxing, allowing a short pause before the next descent. The songs were very danceable and both they and the style went over well with the Berlin crowd. Coupled with mind-bending visuals projected onstage, it was a highly sensory experience. (I could feel a great deal of sympathy with the digital skull collapsing in on itself time and time again.) I enjoyed the set, though by the end it did become somewhat repetitive, a result perhaps of the lack of vocals.
After their set finished, they left the stage to enthusiastic applause, and there was a short intermission before the main act. Lido, with its slightly dazed glamour and ballroom feel was the perfect setting for the bizarre circus that a black midi show promises to be. There was a nervous energy in the sellout crowd. The lights dimmed and, true to form, the band began fucking with us. Strains of Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” began to emanate from the PA. The band sauntered onto the stage, guitarist Matt Kelvin sporting an enormous cowboy hat, singer Geordie Greep dispensing of a trench-coat that looked like it may have smuggled children into an age-innapropriate film. And the show began.
Or rather, it half began. As the band launched into ‘953’, Kelvin immediately encountered a problem with his guitar. This persisted throughout the entire song, necessitating leaving the stage to get a new cable. While the rest of the band kept things moving, it was a very distracting sideshow. Into second song ‘Speedway’ and Greep had to leave the stage and then soundcheck his vocal mic. All of this felt somewhat amateur, especially for a band who had just been receiving plaudits at the Mercury prize awards. With these early technical issues seemingly resolved, the band hit some kind of stride. Oscillating between familiar riffs and verses and outright jam, they built up a ferocious pace.
It is at these moments of high intensity, where Greep acts not only as main vocalist but also as bandleader, subtly navigating the rest of the group through the chaos, that black midi are at their most impressive. With drummer Morgan Simpson laying down an obscenely powerful and dynamic foundation, the rest are somehow able to freakout without everything falling apart. It’s testament both to their technical abilities and their understanding that they do so. Their sound echoes acts like Public Image Ltd. in its angular viciousness, while Greep plays a tortured David Byrne: contorted into twisted dance-moves and nervous tics. The slightly vaudeville horror feel was reflected visually on the stage, reminiscent of David Lynch’s ‘Black Lodge’.
Amidst this highly intensive period, the band played ‘Western’, a quite incongruous slow number. This allowed the audience to appreciate the technical skill, in particular of Greep but also the group as a whole. Its quieter moments allowed individual skill to stand out rather than be subsumed by the collective madness. It was something of a highlight in the show. They then rounded things off with probably their best song to date, ‘bmbmbm’. A crunching and building number that escalated and brought with it the crowd, head banging in time to its cyclical dirge. There was no encore. It would feel like a very un-black midi thing to do.
The show had displayed the evident talents of this young band, of their incredible understanding and technical abilities as musicians, but there had been something lacking throughout. Perhaps they were victims of their own hype. Their stratospheric rise at such a young age sets them apart from contemporaries such as Shame and Idles, who have been touring for years. ‘Heavy lies the crown’, perhaps, and on this showing black midi are not ready yet to wear it. However, there is more than enough talent there that they will continue to be one to watch for many years to come.
A Scottish troubadour, scientist, writer. Jack of few trades.