In a world where most bands feel almost obligated to release their music as quickly and often as possible (an opinion recently voiced by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek: “you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough” – something I agree and disagree with almost equally), it is interesting to find a band like Midlight. A quick internet search will initially think you have misspelt ‘midnight’, but then there is very little to listen to at all, so you would be forgiven for thinking they have just started out, but they have actually been making music in one form or another for over a decade (previously as Brother). Many other artists would have self-released albums and ep’s in that time by the bucket load, but all I could find was a solitary track on Bandcamp (which has now been taken down). And in many ways, that is a refreshing change… an air of mystery instead of usual warts and all approach.
Midlight admit they believe they have found their sound after years of writing and are now willing to share it with the world. They have started their campaign with the release of ‘Sink to the Level’; a song with a laid back but insistent rhythm that is as hypnotic as it is driving. Its clear lack of dynamic shifts and the softly delivered vocal part is an early indication that Midlight are not playing to the pop rules. There is no obvious chorus, and the hook lines are in the Rhodes piano chords that are played at a counterpoint to the vocal line. Every note and space is carefully placed in a confident, unhurried way. Guitar lines wrapped in feedback, delay and phase twist themselves around the complex polyrhythms played on the tom toms, underpinned by a solid bass drum and gloriously smooth bass line. It seems at first that there is not much going on as nothing is demanding attention or wanting to be the focal point, but listen closely and you can pick up a great second muted guitar line and swirling sound effects. Backing vocals play a strong part in fooling a listener into believing there is a chorus, as the vocal line suddenly seems to alter and becomes bigger and busier, but really it is the same repeated piano part almost all the way through. It is a masterful accomplishment to have a song sound so complex and be relatively simple in its chord structure.
There is beauty, brevity and sensitivity in the lyrics too. Three stanzas delivered slowly and precisely with a gut wrenching feeling of inevitability: “I am sick of being loathed, I have everyone’s someone”. The final verse has a quicker pace and the words are delivered more in line with the song’s tempo, with great use of alliteration and opposing positional words: “To fit in I have to face up”, with the final devastating line “Forget me, I’m just the castaway cast off”.
Midlight have listed their influences, including Radiohead and Talk Talk, which I can see in their writing. However, they also say Coldplay and Gotye have inspired them. Usually, at this point I hear alarm bells because I don’t see how anyone who likes the beauty and emotional complexity of Mark Hollis’ work can hold any affection for the bland, grey nothingness that does not adequately describe my distaste for Chris Martin’s collection of dull but radio friendly ditties; they seem to me to be polar opposites. Before the terrible ‘C’ word was mentioned by the band, I did catch lead singer George overemphasize his S’s in a very Chris Martin way, and I have to admit I did not shudder. So if Midlight are being inspired by the good and bad of contemporary music and finding their own space, that can only be commended. However, I guess the only problem for them could be that fans of Coldplay will not find enough pop in the song and Talk Talk fans will balk at any evidence of the pollutant, Chris Martin. They have been asked about describing their sound and were unable to with any clarity, which can be a massive hurdle in today’s music business, where everything has to fit in a genre list if it is to appear in a specifically targeted playlist. I remember being told very early on that in business you find your audience first rather than hoping one will find you; and if it is impossible to locate Midlight and their unspecified sound on an internet search, no matter how great the songs (and they are really, really good), they will be lost.
I must mention that the band contacted me out of the blue and asked me to listen to ‘Sink to the Level’. Before I pressed play I expected to hear the usual derivative indie guitar pop that so many young bands seem almost compelled to make, but far from it, I could hear something very special happening. I asked to hear more of the songs, many of which are still works in progress and I can tell you, there is so much to come. Midlight are an extremely exciting band of young musicians.
‘Sink to the Level’ is released on the usual digital platforms but also has an extremely limited cassette run, with special mixes including the original stripped down demo of the song, musical snippets, studio and incidental sounds. Having now played the tape I can tell you it is an exceptional piece of work; granted there will be many who no longer own a tape deck and there well be a few that will not want to sit and listen to incidental street sounds after the song has played for the remains of the cassette, but I applaud their mind-set and intentions for doing something no one else is even considering. I grew up as a musician making demos on cassettes, so they still hold a very special place in my heart, and to hold a new artist’s release in the 21st Century on a C30 tape, really transported me back to the days when your mastered cassette was only as good as your tape head cleaning routine; a time of Q Tips dipped in the now discontinued ozone damaging dichlorodifluoromethane or amyl nitrite… heady days indeed.
The band have announced that this limited cassette release has all proceeds going to the Save Our Venues fund (https://saveourvenues.co.uk/#/) to support the campaign to help small venues survive the Covid19 lockdown. It is a ‘pay what you can’ promotion that will add funds to the cause ignored by the government.
I managed to speak with guitarist Isaac about the band’s recording and production techniques, as it is something I have a major interest in, particularly when a band is not quite playing by the rules. When I asked about their studio set up, he said: “We have a couple of interesting bits that we use including a Drawmer Compressor Rack Unit, which we found in a Cash Converter for £10. We also like to record the drums both with a SM58 room mic and an iPhone. We then mix the iPhone in with the compression cranked up, that’s how we try to capture the ’liveness’ of the drums. For ‘Sink to the Level’ in particular, we actually recorded it in a single, live take, and so hopefully the sound of the room really comes across. We also like to include little voice notes and samples that we record either on a dictaphone or just on our phones, which you’ll be able to hear on the cassette mix.”
As a fellow guitarist and tech geek, I asked Isaac about his own set up: “I play a 2012 American Standard Strat through a Fender Twin Reverb ’72 Silverface with a whole load of pedals: Empress ZOIA, EHX Superego, Hotline Skyline, Grass, Boss DS1, DD7 and RV5 to name the main ones.”
Isaac went on to enlighten me about the rest of the band’s equipment: “Our drummer, Owen, uses a lot of homemade percussion and homemade shakers etc, and in the track he plays with timpani sticks on the toms. He also has quite a unique sounding crash which we’ve acquired over the years, it has a chunk missing from it which gives it a really short sustain. Our bassist, Ollie, also plays an old nose flute on the track too. The keys are played by our lead vocalist, George, who often plays either keys or acoustic guitar on our songs, as well as taking the songwriting lead.”
It is clear to me that Midlight have taken a long time to really consider everything down to the smallest detail to get their sound how they want it, and I can hear that. Making records should not be about getting four musicians in a room and releasing the first thing that is produced. Although that approach can deliver a certain energy, a more considered method in which arrangements and dynamics are agonized over, gives the listener so much more than an instant rush. ‘Sink to the Level’ may be a slow burner, but it is one that will stay with you much longer.