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Concert Review: Black Midi at Saturn


On Monday, September 12, I had the pleasure of attending perhaps the most jaw-dropping concert I have ever seen.  Black Midi, with their equally well know British counterparts Black Country, New Road, performed at Saturn in Birmingham, a personal favorite venue of mine. Having released their new album Hellfire on June 15th of this year, I had huge expectations for Black Midi. 

Before I get into the main event, I will first discuss Black Country, New Road, and their set. This is a band that I mentioned in my review from last year titled "Five Albums You May Have Missed from 2021," where I discussed their debut album, For the first time. The band then released Ants from Up There in February, a highly anticipated second LP which will certainly be in contention for my Album of the Year in my year-end review. The band’s lead singer, Isaac Wood, sadly left the group just after the album was released due to mental health issues. This was a tragedy for the world of contemporary underground rock music, as the album was quickly received by fans and critics alike as an instant classic, with many likening it to Arcade Fire’s Funeral. The band even cited Arcade Fire as a major inspiration for the project. So, upon hearing this news from Isaac, the band cancelled all tour dates and announced that they would not be performing any prior material. I and many other fans were devastated, but equally intrigued that the band had chosen to stay together. Being the insanely talented musicians that the remaining six members are, I was perhaps more excited to hear their new material than I was to hear the main act. And boy, did they deliver. The band members took turns taking over lead vocals, which really made the show a lot more fun, and a lot less predictable. Tyler Hyde (bass) sang the first couple tracks, followed by Lewis Evans (sax, flute), and the show closed with May Kershaw (keys) in a beautiful final two songs. The level of intimacy found in their first two records, which had a lot to do with Isaac’s vocals (or so I thought), was ever apparent in the live performance. The very slow building, quiet, monotonal intros, leading into massive crescendos, similar to those found on Ants From Up There, were just as passionate, and there were certainly a few tear-jerking moments. Particularly in the second to last song, which began as a solo piece for May, where the remaining members sat down on stage to give her the spotlight. Slowly, one by one, they took hold of their instruments, and joined in on a symphonic masterpiece that likely stretched over 10 minutes. Easily one of the most touching live performances I have had the pleasure of seeing. However, I will be cutting this short so as not to spoil the new material from the band, which I am very excited for.


(From left to right) Luke Mark, May Kershaw, Georgia Ellery, Charlie Wayne, Lewis Evans, Tyler Hyde

Now, before we get into Black Midi’s set, I would like to discuss a few highlights from their latest record, Hellfire. For those of you that have heard their music before, I’m sure you are aware of how, let’s just say, “out there” it is. Combining elements of post-punk, noise rock, avant-prog, jazz, and metal, Black Midi is one of those bands that keeps even their oldest fans guessing. Since their 2019 debut album Schlagenheim, they have evolved from that prog-punk sound into truthfully a genre of their own, whilst bearing comparisons to legendary progressive-rock acts such as Primus and King Crimson, mostly due to the insane technical ability of the 4 band members. Fronted by Geordie Greep, the cast consists of drummer Morgan Simpson (the best drummer I have ever seen live), Cameron Picton on bass and backing vocals, and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin on synth and guitar. These 4 young Englishmen attended the same British arts school (BRIT) as a few of the members in BC,NR, and together they play and tour under the combined moniker, Black Midi, New Road. 


(From left to right) Geordie Greep, Morgan Simpson, Cameron Picton,  Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin 

So, for their latest record, we hear Black Midi somehow up the intensity and technicality of their previous LPs. The album opens with the title track, a crooning monologue from Greep, followed by track two, “Sugar/Tzu.” This is Black Midi at their best, combining fast paced arpeggios with symphonic, more so cinematic crescendos, while Greep narrates a boxing match gone wrong. The next track, “Eat Men Eat,” features Cameron on vocals and an excellent transition from the previous song. To keep this double review brief, I will not be discussing every song in the track list. I will say that while this is not my favorite Black Midi release personally, it is certainly their most well-conceived and cohesive project to date, as well as likely their most impressive project musically. “Welcome to Hell” and “Still” are other highlight tracks, but I will speak no further on their content, so as not to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t yet listened. That, and the fact that I could not adequately describe what is happening on any of these songs. Black Midi, and particularly Greep, are notorious for their fondness with cinema and literature, and in a way each song is like a full-length film or novel, maintaining themes of murder, war-torn Europe, military, famine, and many more. So, I will leave it to you to uncover the meaning and trace the narrative.


Hellfire - Black Midi

Black Midi, since their inception, has towed the line between comical and monumental. The four of them are each unbelievably talented, and yet it appears that they are just goofing around and having fun on each song. This "goofy" element was extremely present throughout the live show, even from the moment they walked out on stage to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve. I wasn’t sure anything could beat BC, NR walking out in a conga line to “Low Rider” by War, but Black Midi certainly came close. They opened with “Welcome to Hell,” then went straight in to “Sugar/Tzu,” which turned it from “a show with a moshpit” to “a moshpit with a few people outside of the moshpit.” Saturn isn’t a huge venue, the show had roughly 500 in attendance (max capacity), but in my opinion, it was the perfect amount. And just like with any great show, the energy of the crowd was reciprocated by the band. The band then went into a few older tracks including fan favorite “953,” and then Greep moved over to bass guitar and Cam picked up his acoustic and started in on the aforemention “Still.” He led the way for three more tracks, and then the band debuted an unreleased track titled “Magic Ian.”

Following this, Greep took back the mic and the band revisited some more classics, beginning with “Chondromalacia Patella,” the iconic fast paced song that has an undecipherable time signature. In fact, I spent most of this show trying to identify the time signature that the band was playing in at any given moment, as it seemed that they oscillated between 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 constantly. Nevertheless, the band followed this with their iconic hit “John L,” which yielded a crowd reaction that most of you can likely picture. They played a relatively standard version of the song up until the bridge, which is when the band broke out into a fully improvised jam. In all honesty, I was a little surprised that band hadn’t strayed from the setlist up to this point, as they are known for their sporadic and long-winded improv sessions. With that said, it was certainly worth the wait, as I believe “John L: live” ended up being over 15 minutes in length, and it was jam packed full of mind-blowing drum solos from Simpson, blues riffs on the keys from Kwasniewski-Kelvin, and a non-stop display of instrumental brilliance from Greep and Picton. While there are certainly lead guitarists throughout history that have always been able to create infectious grooves in the midst of their solos, such as Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai, Jimmy Page, I have never heard anything quite like what I heard that night. Geordie can spend 45 seconds ripping the same blues pentatonic we’ve all heard, then seamlessly transition into an iconic riff from another song, such as their intro song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (which he did) all whilst smoothly dropping the tempo and remaining in sync with the backing beat. He also threw in a Limp Bizkit riff for the handful of fans in the audience. After this, while Morgan Simpson went backstage for a smoke, a drink, or both, Greep delivered a fictional, heartwarming tale about Shaquille O’Neal, and all the major influences Shaq has had on them and the music industry as a whole. Greep even cited Shaq as his first guitar instructor, which I’m certain is true. Following this, the band played a personal favorite of mine titled, “Of Schlagenheim” and closed with “Slow,” a track that featured Picton back on acoustic and lead vocals. Despite the softer instrumentation and Picton’s, how should I say, “less experimental” voice when compared to Greep, he did spend most of the song screaming. After a big closing round of applause, the band made sure to remind us one final time that we pronounce “Birmingham” incorrectly, and walked off. Well, Greep did some sort of epileptic Irish jig, and waved goodbye.

For those of you that have made it this far, I cannot stress enough how blown away I was by this performance. The opening act alone is something I would have paid twice as much to see, but seeing how both bands truly appeared to enjoy being there, and enjoyed playing with each other, simply makes the show more enjoyable for everyone involved. Not to mention Black midi’s innate ability to captivate an audience with insane technicality and catchy songs is undoubtedly worth seeing again. And again. Which I will.

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