Black Midi‘s second album, Cavalcade, much like its predecessor, Schlagenheim, oscillates between minimal yet quirky atmospherics and frenzied, free-jazz-inspired odysseys. While Schlagenheim, however, included the jangly “Speedway” and the garage-y punk of “bmbmbm” and “Near DT, MI”, Cavalcade operates almost entirely within progressive rock parameters, the band displaying virtuosic musicianship while occasionally lapsing into desultory and repetitive soundscapes.
“John L” features a rollicking mix of instrumentation, the band displaying their affinity for staccato rhythms and intriguing arrhythmia, singer Geordie Greep channeling a karaoke-ready Les Claypool impression. “Marlene Dietrich” oozes a cabaret vibe, featuring an infectious swing courtesy of Morgan Simpson’s atypically simple yet propulsive beat, Greep’s vocal a cross between Nina Simone and Anohni.
“Chondromalacia Patella” opens with a funky/jazzy guitar reminiscent of early Chili Peppers, soon shifting into more complex rhythms as Simpson and Cameron Picton on bass forge a bouncy tempo. Greep begins to sing around the two-minute mark, bringing to mind a wistful David Bowie. Around the three-minute mark, the instrumentation lulls briefly before resurging full-blast, an audial welter that expands and contracts, highlighting Black Midi’s gift for dynamic performances and bold, energetic transitions.
On “Slow”, the band demonstrate their knack for soft/loud variations. Crescendos and decrescendos set the stage for Kaidi Akinnibi’s primitivistic sax part, notes squealing from beneath an avalanche of guitars, bass, and drums. With “Diamond Stuff”, the band segue into a more ambient approach, a cerebrally engaging confluence of percussion, synth-y accents, and guitar/bass strings being tightened and loosened. Around the three-minute mark, Picton’s vocal enters the mix, voice wafting above a soundscape that gradually takes form, reminiscent of an orchestra as they finish tuning and prepare to launch into their performance. Around the 4:30-mark, Black Midi find their stride, trebly drones floating above a busy rhythm.
The almost ten-minute “Ascending Forth” opens with a textural emphasis, resembling some of the sprawling atmospheres navigated by Van der Graaf Generator, particularly on 1971’s Pawn Hearts and 1975’s Godbluff. Greep repeats “everyone loves ascending fourths” throughout the song, elevating a somewhat much-ado-about-nothing double entendre (“everyone loves ascending forth”) to mantra status. He continues to sing over discordant chords and spry percussion as the piece unfolds, giving way to a disparate yet effective mix of sustained and choppy guitars and intensifying drums. A dramatic roil thins in the final moments to a gossamer and classically inflected coda of melodic fragments.
Slack and social-media platforms are abuzz with discussions and debates that mention Black Midi in the same context as Dry Cleaning, Black Country, New Road, as well as their progenitors, Slint, and Squid, whose debut, Bright Green Field, was released earlier this month. The bands mentioned above, however, are essentially centripetal in their approaches. Their music melodically, rhythmically, and energetically gravitates inwardly, reinforcing the song and its fundamental structure.
Black Midi, on the other hand, are primarily motivated by a centrifugal impulse. While the band employ structures and produce songs that include compositional patterns and frameworks, these architectures occur as holistically incidental. The centrifugal movement is Black Midi’s raison d’être. In this way, they have more in common, at least aesthetically, with Ornette Coleman circa Free Jazz and John Coltrane a la Ascension and Meditations than they do with their post-punk, post-rock, and art-rock contemporaries.
That said, even a band such as Black Midi, operating in the popular domain, is conditioned by and tethered to pop criteria. That is their seemingly irresolvable dilemma: they vigorously resist pop parameters yet fall short of achieving consummate liberation. The result is work that rebels against traditional expectations while rarely rendering those expectations moot. Throughout Cavalcade, Black Midi display superlative skills, fierce chemistry, and avant-garde vision, offering spellbinding performances while also, and perhaps inevitably, falling prey to sonic tautologies and circuitousness.