Review: Black Midi Demolishes Thalia Hall

Black Midi is a force of nature. This much was indisputably proven on their 2022 hurricane of a record Hellfire. The genre-blending experimentalists pushed their avant-rock to new heights, edges, and breaking points, resulting in one of the most exhilaratingly frenetic albums in recent memory. Their mosh-friendly hyper-speed jazz-rock is reminiscent of early BADBADNOTGOOD, while their punchy, angular cadence and occasional post-punk melancholia evoke influences from Primus to Elliot Smith, with more than a handful of stops in between. Black Midi has also made a name for themselves as being one of the best live rock bands currently touring, not only translating the cacophonous chaos and hair-raising intensity of their records to the stage, but turning it up a few notches as well. I am delighted to report that this was once again the case at Thalia Hall.

In terms of openers for Black Midi, its hard to imagine a more opposite energy than the gleefully warm and approachably uplifting Quelle Chris. Quelle Chris is a bold experimentalist in his own right, providing much of the groundwork in the 2010s for the recent re-embrace of lo-fi underground hip-hop. Significant artists in this lane such as Earl Sweatshirt, Navy Blue, Pink Siifu, and Billy Woods have not only collaborated with Quelle, but publicly given him his well-deserved flowers as well. The set was a jovial occasion, bouncing back and forth through different eras of Quelle’s career. Cuts from his most recent record Deathfame were spliced between tracks from fan favorites "Being You Is Great", "I Wish I Could Be You More Often" and "Innocent Country", closing out with the sinister (yet tongue-in-cheek) “Obamacare” from 2019’s Guns. Even his 2013 debut Shotgun & Sleek Rifle was well represented in the set in the form of the Denmark Vessey-produced “Symbolic (Basquiat)” and the stoner anthem “Another Blunt.” Quelle Chris’ deep, inviting growl (which was quite different from his much smoother vocal performances on record) got the crowds’ heads nodding and his casual, often hilarious one-sided conversation with the crowd made for a welcoming warm-up for the chaos to come.

Black Midi entered to a thunderous applause, only to surprise the mosh-hungry crowd with “Defence,” one of the slowest and most melodic cuts from Hellfire. While this opening definitely sold the grandiosity and theatricality that Black Midi is known to indulge in, it was the next two tracks that truly exemplified what makes them so special. The crowd’s insatiable thirst for movement was not neglected for long, as the band dove into the jaunty and metal-tinged “Welcome to Hell” and the viscerally exhilarating “Sugar/Tzu,” which sounds like what might happen if you asked a group of virtuosic jazz musicians (who had recently consumed large amounts of stimulants) to write a punk rock song. In between affectionately shoving for my life in the middle of the crowd I couldn’t help but be taken by the raw speed with which these very technical riffs were being played. Special mention must be made of drummer Morgan Simpson, whose immaculate timing and physical endurance throughout the set was a marvel to behold. After the three song Hellfire opening, Black Midi reached deep into their bag to bring out “Speedway,” and “Western,” two cuts from their debut Schlagenheim, much to the delight of the feverish crowd.

Bassist Camron Pikton and guitarist/vocalist Geordie Greep switched instruments for a portion of the set, with Greep handling bass while Pikton provided vocals and acoustic guitar. Pikton’s songs (as delineated by the fact that he sings them) provide a different dimension to Black Midi’s music, but one that is no less macabre and theatrical. Tracks like “Eat Men Eat” prove just how heavy acoustic guitar can be, while tracks like “Still” bring a country-tinged tenderness and vulnerability that, especially in contrast to the usual aggressiveness of their sound, is quite touching.

A clear highlight of the set was “Dethroned,” from their 2021 record Cavalcade, which features one of, if not the, tightest bridge riffs in their catalogue, a furious yet tasteful palm-muted run. This was followed not long after by another pair of legendary Cavalcade cuts “Chondromalacia Patella,” (one of their jazziest numbers) and the head-spinning “John L,” before closing the set out with Schlagenheim favorites “Near DT, MI,” and “953.”

Black Midi gives a live performance that is hectic, emotional, and joyous. They are masters of tension, pushing and pulling the crowd back and forth with their odd time signatures and gratifying climaxes. Rarely is a band this experimental, this boundary pushing, and yet this jump-up-and-down-friendly. It was a pleasure to be a member of an audience experiencing such public catharsis, with one of the best rock bands currently touring pulling the strings.

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Aviv Hart