By Jeffrey Deiss
On May 26th, English rock band black midi released their sophomore album Cavalcade. I’ve been anticipating this project for a while. When I stumbled across black midi’s KEXP performance a few years ago, I was convinced that this band would be the group to save underground rock music. It sounded like aliens had come to Earth, ran all of the avant-garde music of the 20th century through an algorithm, and used that algorithm to birth four teenage androids.
The comments section under the KEXP video mostly consisted of phrases like, “These guys sound like a mix of Tera Melos and Swans,” “I wonder if this is how boomers felt when they first heard King Crimson?” and “Talking Heads meets Primus meets Fugazi meets Sonic Youth.” Furthermore, black midi’s songs weren’t just strange for the sake of strange. Drummer Morgan Simpson and frontman Geordie Greep had otherworldly technical skills. As a musician myself I couldn’t begin to wrap my head around the insane grooves these guys played.
Eventually, black midi released their 2019 debut “Schlagenheim.” That album was one of the most mind-boggling rock albums I’ve heard in a long time. It goes without saying that I’ve been excited since black midi started the rollout for Cavalcade. The band released three absolutely bizarre singles with three equally bizarre music videos. The video for “John L,” featuring animated cult members dancing around a giant illuminati-style pyramid with an eye, looked like the second coming of The Residents.
The band’s campaign of weirdness didn’t stop there. black midi accompanied their album release stream with a “press conference.” The band members weren’t even present for the first part of it – they replaced themselves with three half-assed lookalikes. I couldn’t decide whether this press conference was supposed to be creepy or hilariously sarcastic. Either way, it definitely prepared me for the album ahead.
Cavalcade begins with the aforementioned “John L.” One of my favorites on the album, the track begins with rapid-fire chords before exploding into a mess of horns and off-kilter melodies. This section is totally reminiscent of Primus. Greep speak-sings like an auctioneer on drugs, the horns play wonky melodies in unison with the guitar and Cameron Picton’s bass chugs along in the background. The sheer intensity of “John L” is almost scary – I literally felt overwhelmed by all the insanity going on.
“John L’s” middle section consists of an insanely technical rhythmic exercise. The tempo stops and starts and stops and starts with little purpose other than creating tension. I had actually heard them perform a rough version of this song in a concert on YouTube, and I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this section. It’s hard to explain how difficult and mind-bending the playing is until you hear it played live.
The technicality of “John L” and later tracks like “Chrondomalacia Patella” and “Slow” differentiates Cavalcade from Schlagenheim. Schlagenheim was technical for sure, but Cavalcade has a sort of progginess that their debut didn’t. The chord progressions have gotten way more sophisticated and the guitar solos are more “shreddy.” The instrumental arrangements are dissonant, but the dissonance feels calculated, instead of the untethered noise of Schlagenheim. While Schlegenheim recalled the noisy post-punk of Sonic Youth and Slint, this album recalls the jazz fusion of King Crimson and Frank Zappa.
black midi really steps into this jazzy side on the next song, “Marlene Dietrich.” This track really confused me on first listen. It’s not noise rock, it’s not punk rock, it’s not really anything “rock” at all – “Marlene Dietrich” is a smooth bossa nova song. Yes, you read that right. black midi softens their approach and delivers a straightforward bossa nova track. Greep croons all over this song like he’s trying to do a Frank Sinatra impression. In fact, “Marlene” isn’t the only song where the band turns the volume down to 1. A large portion of the 9 minute closer “Ascending Forth” and sections of “Slow” and “Diamond Stuff” sound more like smooth jazz than the ear-blistering noise rock they’re known for.
I appreciate black midi’s willingness to leave their comfort zone on Cavalcade. The focus on sweet melodies and jazz influences definitely add flavor to this project. However, on “Marlene,” Greep’s vocal performance is just too goofy for the song to be truly beautiful. His voice is better equipped for squealing and shrieking like a madman. This doesn’t make the more mellow parts of the album BAD, but to me they have the same feeling of a David Lynch film. Lynch’s cinema is chock full of soap opera-esque dialogue and other cliches. The melodrama in Lynch’s films can feel corny on the surface, but if you watch closer, Lynch’s films become creepy and surreal. You can’t tell if what you’re watching is genuine or a parody of itself. Watch the woman singing at the club in Blue Velvet: it seems like a pretty scene on paper, but something’s just… “off” about it. That’s how I feel about the more melodic songs on Cavalcade – they feel strange instead of heartwarming, especially when they’re bookended by avant-garde riff-fests.
For me, the highlights of Cavalcade ARE the avant-garde riff-fests. The ending of “Chrondromalacia” is one of my favorite moments. The jazzy madness evolves into a sequence of rising guitar leads that get gradually more intense. My head feels like it’s going to explode by the time it’s over. Elsewhere, “Dethroned” drives forward as it cycles through noisy guitar passage after noisy guitar passage.
If you liked Schlagenheim, I would definitely recommend listening to Cavalcade, but I probably prefer Schlagenheim. If Cavalcade feels like an acid-soaked circus, Schlagenheim feels like a haunted house. Schlagenheim had this distorted and abrasive quality that’s definitely missing on this album.
However, black midi definitely ventured into new territory on this album. According to the band, the songs on their debut were built around jam sessions. Their earlier sound was more primitive. Cavalcade, on the other hand, was more meticulously crafted. Greep said that he was heavily influenced by composers like Stravinksy. There are lush string arrangements, horn sections, bebop chords and insane guitar solos. The final track “Ascending Forth” has an almost symphonic feeling to it. They really made the jump to “prog” on this album.
If you’re looking for a bombastic prog rock album with lots of noise and lots of twists and turns, this is the album for you. This album is also a good way to get into the band if you found black midi’s earlier music too confrontational and too dissonant. Despite some flaws, I definitely enjoyed listening to Cavalcade and I will probably continue to do so for months to come.