Schlagenehim is an impressive, protean, raucous debut.
Black midi met at the same prestigious school that produced the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse, and they clearly approach both their much-hyped live shows and their debut album, Schlagenheim, as trained artists and musical theorists. That air of art school pretension does lightly permeate the English quartet’s music, along with the idea of musicians writing a unique combination of intensely intricate compositions with incredibly loud and chaotic sections that never feel as though they are out of their control. Black midi has put together a collection of songs that will please fans of crushing, amorphous noise and precise, detailed musicianship all the same.
The album begins on a brutal note, as sharp guitars and driving percussion lead off “935.” The song eventually slows down and allows frontman Geordie Greep to calmly introduce his vocals atop more softly finger-plucked guitars and ambient noise, but then the engines start up again and the initial riff returns. Over the runtime of the song, black midi continually jumps between those peaks and valleys, a pattern they follow for much of Schlagenheim as a whole. “Speedway” emphasizes a stiff, guitar-and-drum based groove with one of the album’s more linear buildups in intensity. Morgan Simpson’s unflinchingly clean drums shine on the jagged and bouncy “Reggae,” and “near DT,MI,” is another angry, albeit this time brief, explosion. The opening run of songs introduces listeners to the current core principles of black midi: tension and release—an orthodontist methodically tightening braces only to lose their patience and take a hammer to your jaw.
The minotaur waiting at the center of black midi’s labyrinth is the eight-minute epic, “Western.” The song opens gently with guitars and washed drums, before changing direction on a dime and erupting into the winding, jam-heavy core of the track that builds in speed and ferocity until the momentum has taken the band to the limits of what their talent can contain. The song that follows, “Of Schlagenheim,” is best when the band decides to follow along the path of its predecessor and let loose a little. “bmbmbm” begins with an unsettling chug, each strike the ground-rumbling step of an approaching beast. When the song inevitably changes dynamic, the noise is consuming and vile, reminiscent of harshest work by the Gerogerigegege, with equally rambled vocals.
While there is plenty to get lost in and marvel at on Schlagenheim, there are some elements that don’t quite work. The band too often begins with an up-tempo groove and without warning shifts into a cacophonous firestorm—the initial effect of this jarring and fantastic, but repetition of this approach lessens the blow. The decision to add electronics and effects not available in the band’s live performance is commendable and makes the album a distinct experience in comparison; however, additions like the echo effect on Greep’s vocals, unfortunately, abstracts them nearly to the point of losing significance.
But overall, Schlagenehim is an impressive, protean, raucous debut that grabs listeners by their shirt-collars and drags them along for the ride. It’s an album that comes off best when you surrender your control or your presumed knowledge about what might come next and simply experience it. While this album doesn’t necessarily strike an emotional chord, it makes for a fascinating study in repetitive aggression and virtuosic artistry.