Schlagenheim was released by black midi in June of 2019
Going into Schlagenheim, the debut album from English rock band black midi, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had already listened to “bmbmbm,” from the popular KEXP live session, and made fun of the song with my brother, mocking its repetition and the vocalist’s toddler-tantrum persona. My brother and I were both thoroughly uninterested in “bmbmbm,” though we agreed that black midi was probably more of an album-band than a single-band. Going in I didn’t think this album would be as easy as it was to listen to. I was expecting this album to require a Death Grips’ level of patience and to be thoroughly inaccessible but, surprisingly, I was completely wrong. While it wasn’t easy to listen to, it definitely wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. The hardest songs on this album become easier as time went on and there are many melodic, almost pop-like, accessible tracks on this album. It is through the balance of interlacing accessible tracks with some of the more atonal tracks on the record that the strength of Schlagenheim is really shown.
After two of their more atonal tracks, “953” and “Speedway,” black midi begins to show some of their more accessible side with the two tracks “Reggae” and “Near DT, MI”. “Reggae,” an almost ballad, shows off the softer side of the band before descending into xylophone, carnival-like madness as the guitars start playing staccato. Lead singer Greep anchors the song by showing off his distinct squealing voice and his lyrical skills as he repeats the word “maybe” to emphasize his uncertainty and show his lack of self-confidence through lyrics like “The way he comes in through a room in a way I cannot do” and “But my shirt is so un-ironed it could be a mountain range.” “Near DT, MI,” again, finds vocals taking center stage as the band creates one of their hardest and most accessible pieces on the album. Singer and bassist Cameron Picton takes lead as he talks about the ongoing lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. The song builds with hushed vocals and atmospheric guitars before finally ringing out as Cameron brings out some of the most passionate screams on this album, showing the emotion and hopelessness of the scenario in Flint. The song then proceeds into a guitar passage that sounds like it’s being played on a synthesizer, making you question how people so young could be getting such creative sounds out of their instruments. Finally, the song “Western” shows black midi going on a dance-punk flavored odyssey through nonsensical lyrics and dueling. The band again shows off their more melodic side with a fun striding riff being played after a more peaceful, standoff intro. The song takes us on a journey as lead singer Greep talks about the foe he’s facing and how he has given up caring for him, repeatedly saying “I left you in a ditch.” The vocals are passionate, the bass line is danceable, and the rhythm section of the band becomes isolated for a portion of the track, showcasing drummer Morgan Simpson’s sense of hesitation as he leads the way until the guitars come back in. No doubt about it, this is the most fun track on the record and the song you’re most likely to play on repeat.
But it is the combination of atonal tracks with accessible tracks that really make this album great. The track “Years Ago” is a faux hip-hop style rock tune with screamed vocals happening throughout. The band shows off their sense of humor by satirizing a failed viral freestyle from 2013, taking a quote from the video, “Years ago they tried to put me in a-,” and turning it into its own song. Moving on to tracks like “Ducter” and “bmbmbm,” the band becomes even more challenging. The track “bmbmbm” as alluded to earlier, is not the type of track you’d listen to on repeat featuring the lead singer Greep repeating the same phrase,” She moves with a purpose, “over and over in an increasingly satirical, more passionate and squealed tone. Adding to the challenge of the song, the main riff of the song consists of one note being played repeatedly for the entire six-minute track length. It is like no one ever told black midi that a descending bass line can make the same riff seem new for ages and stop a song from seeming repetitive. Where black midi fails to do the norm is where they strive. The passion and ingenuity that each band member puts in allows the 6-minute track to not be a boring pile of waste but to be one of the best tracks on the album. Finally, the last song on the album “Ducter” has a danceable, but mosh-pit friendly riff, again played without a descending bass line or any standard harmonic accompaniment. But still, the band thrives as Greep talks about an argument he’s winning and his superiority over his opponent. Full of Slint-esque build-ups and crescendos as Greep’s voice becomes increasingly more squealed and frenzied, as he sounds like he’s calling for or asserting his superiority over the gods. For some reason, this squealing – which sounds like the “REEEE” noise some people do on the internet to “dispatch normies” – is not abrasive but rather like butter to the ears as he creates a style of singing that is all his own and is completely entrancing.
Listening to Schlagenheim, I feel like the internet felt when they first listened to Death Grips’ The Money Store in 2011. Or, I feel like Björk listening to MC Ride say “Burmese babies” over and over. I feel entirely confused and captivated as black midi manages to create a sound entirely their own. This isn’t indie music, chill music, or lo-fi music, it is something for the future and something not being dragged down by the sounds of now. I’m not sure what will happen to this band in the future. Will they become more accessible in the future, like Pixies, or become even harder to understand? I feel like they’ll find a way to make me and other listeners like me enjoy anything they create.
Reviewer Jonah Nasser is an FM DJ here at WFNP. Catch his show “Anything Good” every Saturday night from 10-12pm.