Once in a while, there comes a band with a presentation so volatile, so unruly that it almost becomes an endeavor to be navigated by its members.
Since forming in 2017, the London-based group known as black midi has experienced a gigantic leap in popularity. That popularity resulted in a smashing turnout for their most recent appearance at the Black Cat in DC.
Following a period that included the release of two singles, a residency at Brixton’s popular venue The Windmill, and then a key live (and recorded) performance during the Iceland Airwaves festival, black midi was signed to Rough Trade Records in 2019 leading up to its premiere studio album, Schlagenheim, which went on to earn a nomination for that year’s Mercury Prize.
Growing just as fast is the band’s following, however, is its sound. Regardless of whatever genre that might be used to try to define this music — prog rock, math rock, noise rock, post-punk, jazz fusion — it’s a sound that pushes the boundaries of what can be accomplished in the studio and on the stage.
But making matters all that more challenging and no doubt more emotional, the band announced early in 2021 that one of its original members, Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, was taking time away from the band to address his mental health. Though he was involved in the first album, he was not featured on the second, 2021’s Cavalcade, and has not been on tour with the band in either of its trips to America in since the announcement.
Stream black midi’s newly released cover EP, Cavalcovers, via Spotify:
Despite the significant setback, black midi — when Parklife DC watched it last fall in Baltimore for the first time — appeared to be a band evolving with confidence, sophistication and promising artistic vision. The band released just last month the digital version of a three-song cover EP, originally included with a limited-edition version of Cavalcade as a bonus flexi 7-inch record , and these recordings shine light on what might be a couple of the band’s influences — King Crimson and Captain Beefheart — and also hears it experimenting with a Taylor Swift cover.
With a return to the area last week, a visit to Black Cat in Washington DC on April 5, black midi looked not like a band coming into its own, but one that attempts in every ensuing moment to outdo itself in the infinite pursuit of mind-blowing, overwhelming sound.
Led by the original trio of guitarist and vocalist Geordie Greep, bassist and vocalist Cameron Picton and drummer Morgan Simpson, black midi has seemingly enlisted not just for the short term but the long haul two men with the chops to push the noise and texture of this machine to the next level — Seth Evans on the keyboard/synthesizer and Kaidi Akinnibi on saxophone(s).
Evans and Akinnibi were part of the crew in Baltimore last October, and it’s presumably safe to assume that they’re becoming permanent studio and stage soldiers, and instrumental to where this band’s sound is pointed. At Black Cat — maybe the perfect East Coast venue for it — black midi put on another unforgettable, eye-opening showcase of the phenomenon that is this band’s accelerating, power-punching, unfathomable live delivery.
Watch black midi’s Live on KEXP at Home performance from 2021 via the KEXP YouTube channel:
Performing tracks from its two studio releases as well as an assortment of what seemed and was later confirmed to be new material, black midi’s Black Cat set could have very well been one lengthy segue—the speakers vibrated through the gaps in between songs, and the rowdy, physically engaged crowd screamed nonstop to give these boys a warm, wild American greeting that might have been lacking in Baltimore due to the barricade erected between the band and the audience.
“Dethroned” from Cavalcade showed the band’s crafty use of Akinnibi’s brass right out of the gate, and using a swell of ambient synthesizer, this curious path became a runway for the visual and audible ambush that is Simpson’s drumming — the award-winning musician absolutely hammers and pounds at blinding speeds, with timing that seems simply unfathomable.
Snugged stage left, Morgan was inexplicably casual even as this song seemed uncontrollable, but he’d eventually expel some of the energy building up within him — letting out barbaric hollers and pumping out beats on top of beats on top of beats. Rightfully so, he is considered one of the most impressive and remarkable drummers alive today.
Perhaps just as daunting as Morgan’s task was Picton’s — not just to keep up with the pace and the changes, but to do his part in directing them, and in the night’s opening song, the bass line was a rampant, expansive trek across a wide territory — just the beginning of a voyaging, illusory show that would see him step to the mic to lead vocals, like he did for the second song, “Speedway” from Schlagenheim, but he’d take to it more than once and at one point even traded his bass off to Greep in exchange for the guitar.
Meanwhile, imbuing the group with its aberrant demeanor, Geordie — whose mysterious social media presence has beguiled fans hoping to interact with him — asserted a psychological control over the Black Cat space with his impassioned bullhorn conferment and his fastidious ways that make him a one-of-a-kind and persuasive stage leader. At times almost inaudible adjacent to the blast of the instruments around him, Greep looked and behaved like a man driven to push the sound to new heights.
And he himself a thrilling guitarist, Geordie’d do it with almost a look of fake disappointment, as if the sound simply wasn’t fulfilling enough. At different times in the set, he’d lead unexpected teases — some say there was a Shakira moment. We’re not sure about that. But might that have been a snippet of James Gang’s “Walkaway” we heard late in the set?
The glaring eye contact, the mostly-suppressed giggles between Greep and Simpson and between he and Picton revealed how much fun these talented fellows are having as this creation — black midi — follows the path being carved by the music.
Akinnibi, a towering presence on the stage, would at different times supply a frenzied, startling injection to the presentation, pulling back to blow with all his might, his hair flying high as he pushed shrieking waves of noise into the audience, on more than one occasion leaning off the stage and over the mass of bodies.
Evans, while not as animated at the keys as teammates like Simpson or Akinnibi get to be, added invaluable tone and adhesive to the entire list of songs. Set up perpendicular to the crowd, he was visibly exhilarated by the uncanny, unrelenting sound that he was helping concoct with a calculated resonant precision.
Stream black midi’s 2021 studio album, Cavalcade, via Spotify:
As the set moved along, and the band moved into unreleased songs, like “Lumps,” “Welcome to Hell,” “Sugar/Tzu,” “Still,” and later, a couple more, it became evident that anyone lucky enough to see this sensational band at Union Craft Brewing back in the fall, and maybe even more so last week, was seeing black midi at a crucial time in its still-early existence.
Stoically pivoting to include additional personnel, augmenting and widening its makeup, black midi has successfully redefined itself coming out of the strenuous pandemic years to live up to its young reputation as one of the most talented group’s out of the UK today and to put itself on a trajectory to continue inventing astonishing, unconventional songs.
The night at Black Cat only cemented that position, and no doubt helped poise the band for what will hopefully be another return stateside, most likely to support what all signs point to being a new album on the way.
Welcome to Hell
Eat Men, Eat
Here are images of black mid as well as the night’s opener, NNAMDÏ, performing at Black Cat in Washington DC on April 5, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.