Artist: Black Midi
Label: Rough Trade
Genre: Prog-Rock / Jazz Fusion
Released: 28 May 2021
1. John L
2. Marlene Dietrich
3. Chondromalacia Patella
5. Diamond Stuff
7. Hogwash and Balderdash
8. Ascending Forth
When black midi bursted onto the scene in 2019 with their debut album “Schlagenheim”, they were an unlikely phenomenon. Four guys who were fresh out of high school, dropping one of the best rock albums of the decade, and somehow making it look like it was nothing. The album was highly technical and eclectic, but it was the band’s distinct character that managed to turn so many heads. The opening moments of ‘953’ were instantly arresting, and the band were able to hold that intrigue throughout the entire runtime of the record, from the absolutely indescribable ‘Of Schlagenheim’, to the infamous ‘bmbmbm’, which is possibly the strangest and most idiosyncratic song I’ve heard in the last ten years. Lead singer Geordie Greep’s bizarre vocal inflections and mannerisms were absolutely captivating, and the instrumentation skills from he and the rest of the band were genuinely something to marvel at. So, when Greep nonchalantly mentioned that he was unimpressed with their debut, and wanted to “make something that is actually good” for their sophomore release, I really wasn’t sure what to think. But now that “Cavalcade”, their second full length album, has finally been released, I can say that my expectations were not only met, but defied completely.
“Schlagenheim”, while being absolutely excellent, had to jump the hurdle of being the group’s debut offering. It felt as though it was intentionally designed to provoke a strong reaction, with constant bursts of insanity at every corner that would either make you instantly fall in love with them, or instantly smash the mute button. There wasn’t a whole lot of down-time throughout, and when there actually were quieter moments, such as on the track ‘Reggae’, they were almost always followed with the band coming back more relentless than ever, (exhibit A: Near DT, MI). When the group released the leading single for “Cavalcade”; ‘John L’, it led me to believe we were getting more of the same.
‘John L’ is possibly the most discordant and chaotic song the band have released to date. Like a lot of the music from “Schlagenheim”, the closer you listen, the harder it becomes to comprehend what is happening. It’s almost like looking at that weird A.I. generated photo called “Name one thing in this picture”, which both “Schlagenheim” and “Cavalcade’s” album art bear some fairly close resemblance to. The music feels as though its constantly on the brink of falling to pieces, but manages to keep itself just coherent enough that it doesn’t become a complete clusterfuck. “Schlagenheim’s” album artwork was a grotesque, twisted, and incomprehensible amalgamation of… something. And this is reflected in its music pretty faithfully. And while upon first glance, “Cavalcade” appears to be similarly grotesque, twisted, and incomprehensible, in both its music and artwork, this is actually far from the case.
I can confidently say that I was not expecting to use the word “beautiful” to describe this record. ‘John L’, as well as the other singles leading up to the release of the album, indicated a wider palate of influences than “Schlagenheim”; from 70s Jazz Fusion to Prog Rock. But I had no idea until I heard the album in full for the first time just how utterly gorgeous it was going to be. ‘John L’ kicks the record off with familiar territory, but is instantly followed with the absolutely spellbinding ‘Marlene Dietrich’, which swaps pummelling guitar lines and cultist chanting for soft, acoustic harmonies and gentle croons.
‘Marlene’ is a complete left-turn for the band, especially after the haunting and horrific ‘John L’. But although the juxtaposition between these two tracks is amusing at first, it’s clear the group aren’t using this stylistic shift as a gimmick. Although many other songs follow suite from “Schlagenheim” in being loud and unpredictably chaotic, such as the track ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’, much of “Cavalcade” is actually surprisingly tender and gentle. Just like its cover art, which looks even more overwhelming and abstract than its predecessor at first, the music of “Cavalcade” is genuinely tender and beautiful upon closer inspection. Tracks such as ‘Slow’, and ‘Chondromalacia Patella’, balance tension and release perfectly, resulting in a great mixture of loud, technical compositions, coupled with moments for the music to properly breathe. There’s a fine line between being technically proficient at playing, and knowing when to stop showing off. Black midi walks this line perfectly. These are clearly some of the best musicians of their generation, but they understand that it’s far more important to allow space to flow within the music, rather than have everyone show off their insane technical skill at every second of every song. The best example of this, is in the absolutely stunning track ‘Diamond Stuff’.
‘Diamond Stuff’ is by far the most minimalistic song we’ve yet heard from the group. It’s composed almost entirely from lightly plucked strings, with some soft vocals from Cameron Picton, the bassist, and despite being the quietest moment on “Cavalcade”, it’s also the centrepiece of the entire album. The slow crescendo as the drums are added towards the end, with layers and layers of vocals building in the background, is utterly mesmerising, and a gorgeous moment that sits amongst the best songs in their catalogue. ‘Diamond Stuff’ is followed by the fantastic ‘Dethroned’, and ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’, which bring the tempo back up before the concluding track; ‘Ascending Forth’.
A few weeks prior to the release of “Cavalcade”, the band did a live performance on KEXP, which featured ‘Dethroned’ and ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’. And while I think these two performances were superior to the versions on the album, I still have no complaints to give for either of them here. Like the rest of the album, they’re practically flawless, and the only downside is that they lack the dynamism that the band bring in a live setting. In fact, their KEXP performance this year is possibly one of the most impressive live performances I’ve seen from a band in a very long time, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for listening to the group if you’re new to them.
The album is rounded off with another beautiful track, ‘Ascending Forth’, which brings it to a satisfying and gorgeous conclusion. Greep is at the top of his vocal game here, and delivers a performance that could genuinely bring a tear to many eyes. It’s a long-winded and emotional track about the death of creative freedom in songwriting, with a narrator who is unable to deliver something genuine and unique, due to studios not deeming his unconventional music style to be marketable to a large crowd. Although the ending is heartbreaking from a narrative standpoint, it still sounds hopeful and triumphant. “Cavalcade”, after all, sounds exactly like Black Midi overcoming this exact obstacle. While they’ve no doubt seen rejection in the past due to the uncompromising nature of their music, this album is a clear victory over this. They made something unique and definitive with “Schlagenheim”, and they’ve managed to do it once again with “Cavalcade”, creating a record that seems to represent their original vision even fuller.
Black Midi, along with many of the other bands hailing from The Windmill scene in Brixton at the moment, are at the top of their game, and will likely play a big role in the shape of rock music throughout the 2020s. “Cavalcade” is only the beginning of this, but regardless, Black Midi have made a masterpiece only 2 years into their musical career, and it will likely be seen as a pivotal moment in this scene of music. I am genuinely astounded at the maturity that the band have shown in such a small amount of time, and if their trajectory continues at this standard, then Black Midi will be remembered for many decades after they’re finished making music together. There’s a rumour that a third album may be on the way before the end of the year, and if this is true, it’s got an insanely tough act to follow.