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May 13, 2023

A young band leaps off the musical grid — and into something refreshingly humanBy Jeremy D. LarsonOne-two-three four … one-two-three four … — at least that’s how I count out the opening riff of “953,” a brazen statement of purpose from the guitarist and singer Geordie Greep, pictured, off black midi’s 2019 debut album, “Schlagenheim.” Or I tap it out on the desk: thumb, index, pinkie, ring … thumb, index, pinkie, ring. Four big notes and two little ghost notes, making up a riff that clambers over the beginning and end of the song. A minute in, they do something similar, except now they make that last beat stretch and hang in the air as if time has stopped, and a whole song’s worth of drumming seems to crowd in.It sounds like proof of life in our digitized and automated world, orchestrated by four curious whelps from Britain trying to break music off its perfect mechanical grid and into unpredictable, imperfect spaces.The band’s name comes from a niche genre of music that exists almost exclusively on the internet. A “black MIDI” song — the genre, not the band — is one with so many notes, crammed so tightly into composing software, that the staff becomes one thick black line, darkened with millions or billions of notes. The musicians and programmers who create this are called blackers, and their work sounds like a legion of grand pianos at war inside an unusually crowded Dave & Busters. This is part avant-garde process music, part one-upmanship, part stress test on what a song can contain and what will happen when a computer can’t handle it anymore. The song “Armageddon v3,” by Gingeas, consists of a single note repeated 93 trillion times and is definitely unplayable on your laptop, unless you have 256 terabytes of hard-drive space lying around.The band black midi doesn’t share many aesthetics with this stuff, but there’s something apt to the name, a puckish appetite for disruption. The four musicians came together as teenagers at the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology in London, making wiry, odd songs born out of a boundless Gen Z curiosity; they’re filled with long improvisations and impressionist lyrics that suggest there’s more life in the underbelly of a moneyed city than there could ever be on its gilded surface. “953” is particularly experimental: Its time signature shifts constantly, from a light-speed onslaught to a relaxed, cavernous crawl and then back. By the end, the band repeats its opening riff while steadily slowing the tempo with impossible precision, like a clock winding down.Between Morgan Simpson’s cephalopodic drumming and Greep’s ancient croon, the band does have a mathy, prog-rock air — but in place of the pretensions normally associated with hyper-technical music, black midi has a kind of pathos. Here they are in this computational age, building whole songs around human uncertainty, songs that keep fidgeting and breathing, even when they’re only repeating a few handfuls of notes. The music’s code is so restless, so elastic, that it resists classification; it hides from the algorithm. Music like this can be a respite from our increasingly mechanized soundscape, smoothed out by Zambonilike digital tools that ensure tempos never vary and nothing is out of place.The way music reaches its listeners is becoming increasingly opaque, too, policed by a computational process that has redefined the spaces in which we listen to and share songs. There are now, literally, hidden proprietary digital codes that shape the way music is distributed and ranked, and we are being conditioned to view their effects as an accurate measurement of the world — to assume that the most-streamed song must be the most popular one, even when we are clueless about the source of the underlying data.But that grand rubato at the end of “953,” the riff becoming slower and slower by pure feel — that’s something that feels untouched by a machine. These four guys pushed this dented jalopy of a song to its breaking point, and now it’s sputtering out on those four notes, one-two-three four … one-two-three four. … This small and simple line of code programs into the song a high possibility of being omitted from big popular playlists because it is neither clean nor harmonious. It suggests something both obvious and inevitable: In a genreless future, alternative music won’t be a response to what is popular — but an attack on the computational nature of music itself.Jeremy D. Larson is the reviews editor for Pitchfork. He previously wrote for the maga

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