Summer Sounds: Black Midi Move with a Purpose, But What Is It?

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Summer Sounds: Black Midi Move with a Purpose, But What Is It?

The enigmatic band played back-to-back concerts in NYC this past month, to equally estranged and enthralled audiences.

The enigmatic band played back-to-back concerts in NYC this past month, to equally estranged and enthralled audiences.

ALYANA VERA/THE OBSERVER

The enigmatic band played back-to-back concerts in NYC this past month, to equally estranged and enthralled audiences.

ALYANA VERA/THE OBSERVER

ALYANA VERA/THE OBSERVER

The enigmatic band played back-to-back concerts in NYC this past month, to equally estranged and enthralled audiences.

By ALYANA VERA, Staff Writer

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Black Midi returned to NYC for two shows in as many days while on tour for their debut album, “Schlagenheim.” The British math-rockers played Bowery Ballroom on Thursday, July 18 before playing just under a mile away at a pop up venue at 314 Canal St. the next day.

Despite being a relatively new band, Black Midi’s cerebral rock has earned them critical acclaim including being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. From playing secret shows across London to getting name-dropped by bigger UK bands, it’s hard to believe that any information about the band beyond their shows was rather elusive until a couple months ago.

Their Instagram is sparse, with stock pictures instead of personal photos and only tour dates populating their captions. Perhaps it’s them eschewing the trappings of a music industry content on selling the musician over the music, or a young band hesitant to make any moves in the all-knowing and never-forgetting internet age.

Despite all the hype around their live shows, Black Midi are a rather stationary band. Drummer Morgan Simpson is the one consistently dynamic member, beating his drums at times with so much force you almost feel bad for them. Lead singer Geordie Greep opts for infrequent hand flourishes while guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin is most animated when he takes over mic duties, choosing to either jolt and stutter across the stage or crouch and cover his face. Bass player Cameron Picton is stoic throughout the set, standing still at stage right throughout most of the racket. Besides the odd movement, the band aren’t very showy or even talkative between songs.

An audience member remarks to me that they actually prefer this breed of anti-showmanship, because it allows the crowd to focus on what’s actually important: the music. Which, while true, can make the experience of going to a show feel a bit isolating and voyeuristic. Contributing to the feeling of isolation is the intense suspicion that Black Midi are the sort of band that a particular subset of men use to flex their intellectual prowess in the same way they use the show “Rick and Morty.”

I’m not entirely convinced that the music works well in a modern-day concert setting. The songs invite almost no audience participation and are devoid of most things that would make music collaborative; jarring instrumental breaks and supposedly nonsensical lyrics take the place of catchy refrains and continuous beats. Black Midi seems to make music for no one but themselves, and we all just happen to be foolish enough to listen.

However, fans do attempt to latch onto the various phrases that Greep shouts out. One crowd member starts shouting “She moves with a what?!” when the telltale beat on “bmbmbm” gets teased by the band, a reference to a lyric that Greep says in various tones, “She moves with a purpose.”

As I watch, I am reminded of classical performances, where the primary function of the crowd is to witness musicians play instruments beautifully. The classical influence exists in both the performance and composition of Black Midi’s work, with each song composed of multiple movements that depart from each other before returning, collapsing and then revitalizing each other in new ways.

While the album can at times feel like a long jam session rather than a coherent piece of work, owing to their penchant for improvisation and nonlinear song structures, this same quality helps make their art feel boundless. 

The music is interesting enough to make up for the lack of presence on stage, but at the same time I wish the chaotic energy in the songs translated to their performance. It’s a bit polarizing to hear Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s pained shouts in “Years Ago” but see very little passion enacted on stage.

While what happens on stage feels a bit distant, the trench between the audience and artist deepened further, there are moments that help bring Black Midi back down to earth. Before their set, members of Black Midi could be seen taking turns doing push-ups backstage, and their Instagram is much more lively in the comments, where the band takes the time to respond to questions. Greep once said in an interview that he’s not interested in the “unnecessary” parts of the music industry, but it’s hard to ignore the millennial and Gen-Z impulse to share parts of ourselves online.

At the end of the show I felt confused but intrigued, which is why I went to see them again the next day. I thought that maybe seeing them again, in a different space entirely, would help me better understand where the artists were coming from. So I made the journey to Manhattan again the next day to 314 Canal St. The performance was set to take place in the early afternoon in a pop-up venue the size of a storage container that was flanked by galleries and art installations.

I arrived shortly before the show was supposed to begin at 4 p.m. and was immediately met with a line that almost stretched the whole block. I hadn’t expected so many people to show up on a workday, especially considering that a heat wave had started to hit NYC. The effect of the heat could already be seen, with the crowd shifting under the sun, waiting for the doors to open. Doors opened exactly when the show was meant to start, and the crowd surged forward in an attempt to get a spot in the small quarters.

The combined body heat of everyone in the cramped venue caused it to feel at least 10 degrees hotter inside than out, with everyone packed in so closely that there was no room to move. I had managed to slip past a few people to stand by the doorway, sandwiched between the sun oppressive heat and an equally oppressive sweaty back. The band, who for the duration of the set I could not see, was stage-less and level with the crowd. They too had to contend with the sweltering hot box, with not a single fan in sight.

It became clear that the setting was less than ideal, as not long into the set Greep had to tell the crowd to calm down with a repeated “Easy tiger.” Someone had ill-advisedly started a pit in the space, which caused several sweaty concertgoers to leave the venue entirely. Later in the set, Simpson reiterated the sentiment and added, “We don’t want anyone getting heatstroke.” Pedestrians stopped to see what was going on, their view and path obstructed by the dripping crowd.

Black Midi’s set featured fan favorites “bmbmbm” and “Crow’s Perch,” which is not on “Schlangenheim,” as well as “Near DT, MI”. “Near DT, MI” is the one song that feels like it’s making a statement on an album that otherwise offers little direction. The lyrics “Dead in the water” allude to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It’s one of the only invitations to conversation from a band that isn’t concerned with making digestible music.

The set only lasted 30 minutes, and Simpson tells me later that the set was cut short due to the heat. As the crowd slowly dispersed, I finally managed to see Black Midi. The band looks a bit stunned as they towel off and greet stragglers. Maybe it’s because of the heat, or the sheer amount of people who had turned up to see them play who are now spilling out onto the street.

As we talk, Simpson expresses some regret about the venue choice, and I get the impression that the turnout was unexpected. It’s a reminder that each member of Black Midi is still young, and perhaps at the same time as we are trying to figure out what to think of them, they are trying to figure out what to make of us. Are they a band with the anti-pop mission statement the press ascribe to them, or a young band still testing the boundaries of what they can create while they still can?

It seems unlikely that a band that has worked so hard to avoid being pinned down would commit to such an ideological vision. Maybe it’s less that they set out to buck industry norms and more that they are fresh-faced enough to be making music that appeals to them rather than a consumer. Whatever the case, Black Midi make music that is frustratingly evasive, with part of the thrill being the chase.

Black Midi return to NYC on November 11 for a show at Warsaw.