Album Review: black midi – Cavalcade

[Rough Trade; 2021]

Nobody is doing what black midi are doing. This freaky band of misfits have spawned an entire legion of devout fans and cultists who are drawn to the controlled chaos that rips through the ear drums. Combining a myriad of genres – some adjacent, some not – black midi are at the forefront of a revolution in rock music. Their sophomore record Cavalcade manages to pendulum between math rock, prog, post punk, and jazz fusion, while also sprinkle in bits of folk and pop for good measure.

It’s a banner year for this bold approach. Already we’ve seen fellow London-based bands like Squid and Black Country, New Road take their ambitions to new heights and be richly rewarded, both critically and with fan adoration. But black midi are transcending to a new plain of existence in this vortex that is rock music. While they have compatriots doing something fresh and exciting in their own lane, black midi aren’t even on the same highway. They’ve forged their own path, they’ve gone off-road, and are barreling, on fire, towards a cliff.

There’s no doubt some King Crimson comparisons to be found here; Robert Fripp’s unique style of prog rock was iconic for its time, and it still influences the genre today, but black midi aren’t continuing any legacy. There may be some fingerprints here and there, but, make no mistake, they aren’t imitating anyone on Cavalcade. What black midi have accomplished with both of their albums needs no comparison to bolster its quality, their music speaks for itself. Even their debut, Schalgenheim, which came out just two years ago, now seems like old hat compared to what the band has accomplished on Cavalcade.

Their lead singer, Geordie Greep, is a bit of a legend by now. He looks like he’s 12 and yet somehow manages to sound like he’s a deranged and ageing cowboy. On the opening “John L” he muses on kings and their downfall (“John Fifty is in tatters, his soapbox usurped / His torn robes adorn the tree stumps of the earth”), but it doesn’t come across as politically charged or topical – Greep’s traveling between time and space, wielding his own Infinity Stones to rewrite guitar music for the future’s consumption.

Instrumentally, Cavalcade is pistons firing in succession, and while they sound unpredictable to our ears, it’s all calculated down to the millisecond. This is high craftmanship, a delicate appreciation for one’s art, and black midi are a strong unit on Cavalcade. They barrel-roll through styles like its second nature to them. One minute they are slowing it down to porch-rocking string plucking on “Marlene Dietrich”, the next they’re avalanching with jagged guitar shuffling on the extended intro to “Chondromalacia Patella”. None of it feels forced, or even out of character. It’s all natural, it’s all cohesive.

Cavalcade may share some likeness to its ancestors, but black midi feel displaced in the continuum. The Londoners consume every moment with innovation and a restless ambition. Greep pushes his voice to its limits, not through erratic screeching or focused babbling like he did on Schalgenheim, but drawing strength from somewhere otherworldly, allowing it to complement Moragan Simpson’s flawless drumming.

Bassist Cameron Picton takes the lead on the album’s two central tracks, extending his vocal presence in more subdued form than he did on his turns from their debut. Whereas Greep’s voice and words share more in common with Nick Cave and maybe a little bit of elder David Bowie, Picton goes in the opposite direction. He’s not talking about “dogshit park” this time, he’s merely keeping in sync with his band’s unhinged brutality. black midi isn’t an overly aggressive act, though; they have elements of barbaric force, but unfiltered beauty seeps out of every track. On “Slow”, they isolate Picton in a hallway while the jazz orchestral bounces off the walls in grand fashion. “I’m almost on my way” he says, “Cracking, snapping, little footsteps.” Every footstep is felt here; they might be loud one moment and soft the next, but they all matter and work into the core of the album. This isn’t Picton’s only shining achievement on Cavalcade. He follows it up with the alluring “Diamond Stuff”, which maintains the ominous tone from the preceding “Slow” and resides in a dark void that continuously consumes any light source as it spins wildly out of control.

“Dethroned” will please fans of Schlagenheim, as it packs in several frantic breakdowns and accelerates the pace coming out of the daydreamy middle of Cavalcade. At one point, Greep even sounds like Maynard James Keenan of Tool as he belts into the ether, but he pulls back just enough to ground the band firmly in their natural habitat. While it features something akin to the signature sound that black midi first used to gain attention, it doesn’t feel half baked or come off as a regression.

Cavalcade is proof that there’s still life in guitar-based music, so long as aspiring minds find creative ways to adapt it. This group of young musicians has somehow captured everything that made rock music exciting for decades and processed it into this glorious amalgamation of genres. They lure you in, incapacitate you with their pulverising playing, and revive you with surprisingly affectionate keyboards and acoustic strings on the overpowering closer “Ascending Forth”. Cavalcade is an experience album, one that lingers long after it’s over. It calls to you from the basement.