Calculated tumult. No two words in the language English better sum up the much-anticipated second full-length LP from Black Midi, the UK’s more aspirational and engaging experimental rock band. Those clinging to the cataclysm of the band’s 2019 genre-defying debut, Schlagenheim, don’t need to fret – there are few indications on Cavalcade of a slowdown or a sophomore slump. Far, far from it. But while some tracks on the eight-song LP will inspire listeners to toss around adjectives like “cutting-edge” or “brilliant” or consult a thesaurus for synonyms, there are, sadly, occasional lulls on the album and that leaves it feeling slightly less than a complete effort.
The record opens with the bombastic “John L” – Roman numeral short-hand for “John Fifty”, regrettably not a postmodern homage to everyone’s favorite Beatle. The band display incredible precision and edginess on this prog-inflected number. Guitar, saxophone, and drums all rage along with blinding flashes of sound and then stop stop STOP, repeatedly, on the spot of a dime to drop hints of King Crimson in their prime. The whole thing, which feels intensely calculated, also feels incredibly pressurized and hyper-dangerous – and that sort of alchemy doesn’t come easy.
“Chondromalacia Patella”, the record’s excellent third track, aims for similar angularities, with sorta-frontman Geordie Greep blurting out the occasional six-string color-line between strums of starchy, chikka-chikka guitar. A breakdown about a minute into the noise, though, is both unexpected and illuminating, lending the group real jazz posture and cred, and adding all sorts of florid but somehow also slight clean guitar lines into the carefully crafted mix.
What separates “John L” and “Chrondomalacia Patella” in the album’s sequencing is a big part of the pitfalls down which the record occasionally tumbles. The ballad “Marlene Dietrich”, coming in for some reason at number two, is an off-handed departure, with Greep’s borderline post-rock pulse-guitar being greeted by the band’s balance with cheesy, over-adorned pop-jazzery. Just when you begin to wonder if the band is playing this all a little too tone-deaf, they offer hints of synthesized strings. Perplexing, indeed. For a band this content – no, hungry beyond belief – to musically name-drop influences and aggressively bang your head against the wall of several genres at once, “Marlene Dietrich” rings a little flat. Much the same could be said of the too-long album closer, “Ascending Forth”, whose plucky guitars appear in a climbing 4/4 cadence (get it?) but whose meandering verses and over-dramatized vocal stylings again seem to swing and sway but miss the head of the nail.
That said, there’s a lot to worship here. The too-good-to-be-true “Hogwash and Balderdash”, whose universe somehow unfurls in less than three minutes, is simply wondrous claptrap. It’s a meeting of Primus’ reefer-stained funk-rock with late-stage Mr. Bungle’s pastiche tendencies and Skeletons’ sense of polyrhythms coming apart at the seams. For some listeners, hell, for many of us, this might be one of the most welcomed tunes of the year and arguably the best track on the record. It’s picture-perfect, right down to the maddening and cartoonish fills that bridge verses where Greep blurts out lyrics amid the walls collapsing around him.
Then, there’s “Slow” with its hypnotic loops. It’s as addictive as methamphetamines and just as likely to charge you up in a stanza or two. Despite its title, the song features an anything-but-slumbery, engaging, and circular rhythm pattern from drummer Morgan Simpson, who keeps the quieter moments of the track (think Steely Dan) feeling as inspired as the parts that wax loopy.
On the other hand, “Diamond Stuff” is sluggish and haunted, which is necessary for a record that, at times, hyperventilates with its beats per minute. Saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi kicks off “Dethroned” with a pastoral little sax line. Still, it’s again Simpson who steals the show, offering pin-prick-precise percussion around slight guitar angularities and the occasional thrum of the chorus. The thing erupts by its closing – to grand Molecules-ish effect.
Black Midi, who fashion the band’s name in all lower case, do anything but play in cases lower on Cavalcade, that’s for sure. In PR materials, Greep and others in the band say the driving thesis of the record is its drama and its character portraits. Sure, sure, we’ll agree there’s something to that. The group have always shown themselves adept or expert in its chameleon-ness despite its nascency. (The quartet formed in 2017, just four years ago.) And their somewhat instinctive ability to adapt on the fly and bend listeners’ expectations to their will is clearly writ large here. Cavalcade is a great LP, and, though not a fully brilliant or complete masterwork, it will leave many others imitating these guys sucking wake.