With nods to King Crimson, Talking Heads, Death Grips, and many others, London’s Black Midi creates a unique brand of cathartic punishment on their excellent debut. The band’s barely college age (they met at the same prestigious performing arts school that produced Adele and Amy Winehouse), but they’ve attained striking erudition, dexterity and compositional know-how for musicians so young — not to mention a lot of UK hype for a band this odd.
Add to the above-mentioned touchstones Pere Ubu, Congolese soukous, modern classical music, electric Miles Davis, the skronk-jazz side of Beefheart and Zappa, moody Nineties math-rock and the ADD herky-jerk of Deerhoof and Lightning Bolt. Schlagenheim isn’t an easy listen — especially singer Geordie Greep’s athletically hectoring vocals, which can suggest Les Claypool of Primus or the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra as the sort of speaking-in-tongues street corner soapbox ranter you can’t help but stop and listen to, while praying you never make eye contact.
The music’s just as bracing. Album opener “953” evokes a bleaker, more musclebound version of the Boredoms’ splatter-thrash chaos; “near DT, MI” is a stunning blur of velocity and violence; and the album-closing “Ducter” forces you to apprehend an almost comic amount of unhinged screamadelic glossolalia. People with fond memories of when indie-rock shows and recordings could feel like endurance tests, when bands made you work as hard as they did, will feel at home here. But Black Midi (who say they bonded playing Sabbath and Frank Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” on Guitar Hero), also come off like a band in love with discovery, exuding fresh-faced playfulness as much as scattershot revulsion. Their music rarely feels like chaos for its own confrontational sake, most songs tensely shifting between harried aggression and harried introspect, as if there were no difference between fending off the world and thoughtfully making sense of it.
There’s a sense of pastoral wonder in the opening of “Western,” which develops into a micro-managed wash of Frippertronic guitar before taking full shape as a rubbery avant-funk spree striped with gray sheets of guitar scraping, then winding down into something almost Grateful Dead-like its slow, pretty meandering grace. “Years Ago” opens with a burbling android undergroove out of a Brian Eno/Harold Budd ambient composition, then becomes something more like the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow doing guest vocals on a hyperactive Slint outtake.
There’s so much going on here that nothing ever gets bogged down enough to fees indulgent or wanky; most songs clock in at under five minutes, and even the longer ones seem to go by in a blip, as if pranking our iPhone-addled attention spans. Indeed, there’s humor here. On the mordantly swinging “Of Schlagenheim,” the album’s best all-out jam, Greep sings with pop-eyed intensity, turning his geeked up agitation into stand-up: “Sweat is running down my face/I wish it could be cold/So I could get a bottle full of it and sell it to the old.” If he did, it’d be top-shelf stuff stuff.