Fulham fanhood, avant-rock, and the sense this is all an elaborate joke that we might not be in on
Black Midi’s entry into 2022’s End of the Road festival is pure theatre. Playing on the boxing motifs that characterise the South London band’s third album, the voice of a fake ring announcer declares that we are about to witness “the heaviest, most rocking… the most hardworking heavyweight band in the world”. Then, as the lights dip down, the strains of Pavarotti’s ‘Nessum Dorma’ fill the Garden Stage, soundtracking the band’s slow assembly on the stage like a group of contenders returning to defend their title on home turf.
As laurels, they’re completely invented, of course. Kasabian, those well-known kings of understatement, even did something similar to kick off their gigs when they were still a thing. Still, at the same time, it’s all undeniably very Black Midi. Arriving onto South London’s punk scene back in 2018, the band have left a trail of confusion with their indecipherable mix of avant-jazz, crushing noise-rock and lyrical non-sequiturs. This, combined with the band’s various inconsistencies and enigmatic approach to the media, has led to the idea that Black Midi is a joke that the three-piece are playing on the world.
I’m not sure if I totally buy it, mainly because the band are just too good to be completely joking. Much has been made of the group’s roots at the BRIT School, but no one can deny that Black Midi have some chops. Opening with a pairing of ‘Welcome to Hell’ and ‘Sugar Zsu’ from the most recent Hellfire, the band play with total commitment. As the group navigate the vortex of competing time signatures and tonal shifts with nonchalant ease, initially it feels like the whole crowd is stunned by the sheer wealth of raw talent on show.
But as the initial sense of awe fades and Black Midi grow into their set, all sense of cohesion begins to fall apart. The quick left turns and bizarre tempo changes become more and more chaotic as the evening progresses, replacing the raw power of their early numbers with a sense of puzzled bemusement. At one level, the fault lies more material than the band being wilfully obtuse. Three albums have left us with three Black Midis, all battling to come out. The tracks from Schlagenheim with their Saturday Morning cartoon energy vie for attention with Cavalcade’s more thought-out orchestrated tracks. Throwing in the more bombastic numbers from Hellfire results in a set that randomly jumps in tone and texture, and this tension between Primus-style post-hardcore and weird lounge vibes basically spells out the trajectory for the remainder of the evening.
The band’s habit of improvising and heading off on weird tangents only compounds the effect. Tonight’s set is filled with odd little asides and weird little ad-libs that add to the sense of mystery. Early into the set, a song spins off to discuss the band’s travel to the festival and their adventures in Fleet services. Later, among the thunderous sonic clash, bassist Cameron Picton suddenly pauses to blurt out, “Aleksandar Mitrović, you’re a legend; I love you!” Why the Serbian international and Fulham striker is relevant to this particular situation is beyond me, but as a moment that illustrates the storm of randomness at the heart of Black Midi’s collective personality.
Writing this the morning after, I’m still not sure exactly what I’ve watched. I’m unable to decide if we were witnessing a virtuoso set of punk-infused free jazz or an extended band practice played out live on End of the Road’s second-largest stage, but whatever it was, it was puzzling. There’s a thin line between genius and stupid, and four years and three albums on, I still can’t figure out where Black Midi are on that measure. Whether you believe that the band is the mind of James Joyce rendered in musical form or just a bunch of giant trolls, there’s no way anyone could say that Black Midi are boring.