Noisy, dissonant and jarring. These characteristics, often considered criticisms, are exactly what makes the new single “John L,” by black midi so powerfully thrilling.
Black midi is a London post-punk band composed of several talented musicians who were all trained at the BRIT school, one of the best arts schools in the UK. Coming to fame due to their loud and energetic live shows around London, black midi already had developed a following through word of mouth by the time they released their debut album, “Schlagenheim,” in the summer of 2019 and were playing shows right until Covid hit.
Even though they may sound somewhat similar to many other noise-improv bands, they have a sound that is uniquely their own. In one word, black midi’s sound is chaotic. To listen to them, you have to be okay with abrasiveness. The mania that builds in many, if not all, of their songs is reminiscent of Slint’s “Spiderland,” where dynamics shift dramatically throughout each song, and expectations are constantly subverted.
“John L” is perhaps the most black midi-ish song the group has written to date. It features the addition of a saxophonist and a violinist, both of which add to the mayhem. The resulting cacophony of sound presents you with a sensory overload, until, all of a sudden, it drops out into an uneasy silence. Moments later, it roars back into existence, even more dissonant and frenzied than before. The beats’ nested tuplets at times makes the whole tune feel arrhythmic. But then, without you even realizing it, everything’s come back together, moving smoothly again.
The musical cacophony pounds your ears, especially around halfway through when a repeated riff on the violin begins drilling away. The tempo accelerates until it is interrupted by a sudden cutoff. At this point, you can hear the drummer’s rhythmic talent, who is playing very odd tuplets like it's no big deal.
The lyrics tell a tale about a town and a man named John Fifty. He preaches to the masses and whips them into a frenzy. The song was perhaps written in an effort to bring attention to the depravity of humans and the ease at which they may turn into a vicious mob.
The song is extremely noisy, abrasive and dissonant — it is definitely not for everyone. But if you can appreciate the art of ugliness, then you should check out this single.
Those turned off by the song’s rougher features may prefer the accompanying b-side, “Despair.” This song sharply contrasts “John L”: it is smooth, flowing and calm. In fact, it’s beautiful. The flowing vocals alongside the fairy-like guitar with a light dusting of drums make you want to close your eyes and dream. The texture is relatively thin, and it is primarily vocal-driven, with all the other instruments supporting the singer. The sound is well-balanced and pleasant on the ear. However, it has a sad air to it: a longing for something that cannot be had. Looking at the lyrics, it’s uncertain exactly what the song is about, but lines such as “Oh Valentine, welcoming the sadist of old. Cursing all to a lifetime of miserable, clutching of miserable straws” definitely give you an idea of the mood in the writer’s head.
“Despair” is much more accessible and is also extremely different from much of the black midi discography. But that’s not a bad thing: Because it’s so different, it may be one of my favorite tracks by them to date. Unfortunately, it will not appear on the band’s upcoming album, but I hope they will write more pieces like it.