black midi live: Patterns of earnest pretense
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, November 19, 2019
“Monicalewinskymonicalewisnkymonicalewinsky!” shrieks the criminally young Geordie Greep as he — after sustaining an iceberg gaze and flatline grimace for over an hour — finally breaks into a grin, disintegrating the ferocious atmosphere surrounding his band, UK’s prodigious black midi. The improvised line, ushering in the end of his night at Detroit’s newly minted music hub, Deluxx Fluxx, offers a pleasant reminder: black midi — despite the hype (manifest in their media-given status as Prog Rock revivalists indebted to King Crimson, Yes and others), obvious talent (if you claim to know of a drum/bass combo more electric than Morgan Simpson and Gordon Picton’s jet engine exchange, you are, in fact, wrong) and pseudo-serious demeanor — really only wants to have a really f—–g good time.
Pitchfork, seeing some of itself in black midi, lovingly calls the band “pretentious” while the less impressed Guardian and Consequence of Sound openly deride the lads for their strains of self-importance. None of these pencil jockeys, in all their verbal dexterity, manage to capture, or even notice, the elemental qualities (beyond influence and comparisons) connecting the black midi of the stage to their adoring venue audience.
Nobody goes to a black midi show for hooks, family-friendly melodies and oh-so-very relatable lyrics. They go instead to soak in the band members themselves, live vicariously through their passionate yelps and overwrought rhythms — the wailings of people playing music for their own sake. These noises constitute a rejection of pop, brought to grotesque life on stage where they laugh violently at an industry in which every artist must, in one way or another, commodify their art to scrape out an existence. On this year’s record “Schlagenheim,” such noises sound relatively tame, but in person they breath sub-zero flames through the uncompressed, unmediated channels linking amps to ears. The black midi show, then, is an intimate transaction, discovering in the “pretentious,” “self-satisfying” corners of their songs an unexpected and infectious earnestness.
black midi makes this earnestness a full stop when, after tearing through their single release discography and more than a few “Lewinskis,” they conclude their set with a wildly experimental cover of The Champs’ 1958 standard, “Tequila.” Emanating a melodious familiarity absolutely alien to everything black midi, “Tequila” represents everything black midi is not: pop, pure and agreeable. But, in the young band’s irreverent hands, the track reinvents itself as both the butt of a lengthy joke and the object of intense admiration. As the band runs at breakneck speed from “Tequila!” to “Tequila!” the audience shifts, irreversibly, from a deeply ingrained “this is so stupid” mentality (a stock feature for punk show attendees) into a state to hallucinogenic bliss. As such, “Tequila” by black midi reclaims agreeable pop for the discontents so ready to disparage it.
While realistically black midi’s “Tequila” exists so the band has something to play after exhausting “Schlagenheim’s” 43 min, its effects echo regardless of the band’s intent. They mark an experience specific to a moment and a room, available only to those in attendance, and they carry the intangible textures (outside even the band’s control) inherent in the word “live.”
If you want the full black midi — the version you won’t find on YouTube or Spotify — then give up 15 of your best dollars and pay them a visit.