I first heard ‘Western‘ by Black Midi in the midst of late summer in 2020, a time where the COVID-19 pandemic was at a lull, but uncertainty was rife. No vaccine, experts warning of a second wave, and life was certainly not ‘normal’.
I had come across Black Midi briefly before but hadn’t dug much beyond the surface. Although initially daunted by it, their erratic sound is exactly what I came to like so much about the band. It wasn’t until I heard ‘Western’ however, that I really understood why this band have gained somewhat of a cult following. This song has felt very evocative of that summer, as often happens with music.
‘Western’ has mostly quite indecipherable lyrics, vaguely depicting the story of a band striving to perfect their music and take to the road with it. It starts with a repeated guitar melody that is peaceful, meditative, transporting the listener to a place that feels far away both in time and space. A warm, nostalgic picture, but with an element of unrest. The sharp transition to the middle section drives this, creating an atmosphere that is at once glorious and desperate. For the next four or so minutes, the song goes hard, building and building tension in a way that never feels repetitive, aided by Black Midi’s ability to develop a soundscape. As much as anything, this song is catchy, filled with satisfying guitar licks and wonderful melodic bass playing. Then, as abruptly as the stress arrives, it leaves, returning to the hypnotic first section. Although this song is a healthy 8 minutes long, it feels as though this end section could go on for much longer. A banjo can be heard gliding wistful over the backing, transporting the listener once more to a place of serenity. It is this overall arc that feels so timely in my own discovery of the song, reflecting the way in which we have depended upon our past experiences for hope in this time, and often experiencing rapid shifts between optimism and existentialism. ’Western’ is unlike most other Black Midi songs, but it stands out as a demonstration of the band’s ability for creating an emotional tapestry, as well as of how rewarding experimental rock can be.