Black Midi, Rattle: Phase One, Liverpool

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Black Midi

Much-vaunted young pretenders Black Midi arrived in Liverpool on the day they released their debut album; Getintothis’ Matthew Eland shouldered to the front to investigate.

Black Midi already have a lot of baggage.

Everyone crammed into Phase One is familiar with the story: graduated from BRIT school despite not sounding like Amy Winehouse; started playing in Brixton in 2017; signed to Rough Trade in January 2019; Dan Carey-produced album released today, June 21, 2019.

However, the buzz of their live shows, the noise surrounding their (reputed to be relatively substantial, in the current climate) record deal, the jump from near-obscurity to a lengthy and wide-ranging tour: none of that matters tonight.

They have a room full of folded arms and furrowed brows, a room full of people ready to proclaim them the real deal or a blank squib; ready to rhapsodise or shrug their shoulders.

First, though, there’s Rattle.

Rattle are Katharine Eira Brown and Theresa Wrigley, two drummers who sit facing each other.

Their percussion is overlaid with vocals from Brown – more melody than actual lyrics – and sound manipulation from invisible, secret third member Mark Spivey, from behind the mixing desk.

Rattle are difficult to talk about in the same way that those Derren Brown shows – where he hypnotises the audience and no one can remember where they’ve been – are difficult to talk about.

Time becomes irrelevant; which is appropriate, because some of the manipulations make the shuffling snare patterns from Wrigley (rattlings, if you like) sound like ticking clocks.

It’s completely hypnotising. Rather than being a chore, it’s engrossing in the way that the focus required to structure and perform such compositions has to be total and all-encompassing.

They’re not the sort of songs you’d hum while you’re waiting for your lover on a train platform, perhaps; but in the live environment, the single-mindedness and precision required to create such music makes for an intriguing spectacle.

Then, we’re treated to almost half an hour of nineties R&B, presumably at the headliner’s request. Their walk-on music is almost the entirety of Break Stuff by Limp Bizkit.

It’s tempting to read too much into this. Black Midi are an outfit whose propensity to let the music do the talking has given them a slight veneer of mystery.

We could take their name – which is a genre of song remixing using MIDI files to create a server-shredding multitude of notes – and infer that this is a commentary on the noise and present-shock of modern life, and of the band’s overall aesthetic, that of a super-algorithm compiling as many cool-sounding practise-room flukes into as small a space as possible.

When really: they probably just thought it sounded cool.

Same goes for song titles: early press releases stated that the track listing for the album would be released on the day. Are they teasing us, this band with a (relatively) threadbare social media presence; making a comment on the world of total information and instant gratification; making us wait for it?

When really: the song titles don’t matter that much.

They’re remarkably relaxed and loose, for a band on their first major tour. We’ve only had the day to listen to the album, but even so, it’s difficult to see where some songs end and others begin.

953 comes early on. The album version seems more like a blueprint for what they play tonight; a framework on which the notes can replicate and weave.

They have a formidable engine room in drummer Morgan Simpson. He comes on-stage clad in a Reebok-era Liverpool shirt, but it’s not long before he’s shirtless and sweaty, smashing out fills between the beats of the locked-in groove.

There’s a sense of deconstruction amid the snare-tight structures. Even as each member goes down their own improvisational rabbit warrens, they’re each still linked to the pulse of the music.

At times they’re like an organism, a mass of cells growing exponentially. Albeit one in terrible cowboy hats.

The improbably named Georgie Greep enters in a sleazy looking mac, and prowls across the stage with a prefect-like watchfulness.

His Primus-meets-Dexter’s-lab vocals have been much remarked upon as a marmite factor; but tonight, his voice is only part of the palette. He’s a compelling frontman, and the speaking-in-tongues of tracks like bmbmbm take some doing.

Every time they threaten to go off-piste, they rein it back in with a more faithful rendition of one of their tunes.

Album highlight Ducter gets nearly a full airing; the build and break, with Greep’s invocation of ‘they’ll never break me’, is a good example of what they’re best at: the manipulation of tension and release.

All the references are discernable: Battles, Slint, Butthole Surfers. They sound like all of those, and not like them at all. They’re completely their own beast.

But is the hype worth it?

Some people clearly aren’t impressed.

Granted, the impact is lessened when you’re further back, when you can’t see the frenetic skill of Simpson or the virtuosity of Cameron Picton and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin on bass and guitar, respectively.

They could also be accused of going too far into the improvisational wilderness at times.

For this writer, though, it’s difficult not to get caught up in it. It’s difficult not to admire the sheer audacity.

All the reference points are there, but they still sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. They don’t even sound anything like their own album.

What’s more remarkable is that none of the column inches are about prodigious drug habits, or about any propensity to have a barney with each other whenever they’re within 100 feet of a journalist.

They’re about what an accomplished and talented group they are.  And for such a seemingly uncommercial group to get such backing is similarly inspiring.

Hopefully they can take advantage of this moment, and use the platform they’ve got – not one afforded to many these days – to make real headway.

They’ve played a blinder in getting their album out so quickly; in giving themselves something to build upon and react to, a foundation to move forward.

Who knows where their they’ll end up. But for now, believe the hype: Black Midi are an astonishing band, one truly more than the sum of their parts.

Photos by Getintothis’ Lucy McLachlan.

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