“In two years, Black Midi’s music will be unrecognisable compared to what it is today,” the London band decreed two years ago. To hold them to their word is unfair, and to hail their second album ‘Cavalcade’ as “unrecognisable” is a stretch – the songs remain uniquely Black Midi. But as they hone their wild riffs, the band strike curious new ground.
Plunge your hand into a grab-bag of alt genres and whatever combination you pull out would probably describe Black Midi – avant-garde free-jazz prog rock, anyone? You could also just call it music turned inside-out and back-to-front. Born out of the Brit school and south London’s prolific scene, the band share less and less ground with their post-punk peers, writing songs that leak out from their edges rather than navigate the territory within.
Their 2019 Mercury-nominated debut album ‘Schlagenheim’ found the skilled musicians thinking outside one box, but sometimes just ending up in another. Renowned for vigorous free jams both in the studio and on stage, their sonic freedom can result in a kind of Jackson Pollock-y predictability.
“It’s not improvised if you fall back on the same riffs and grooves,” the band reflected as they set to work on ‘Cavalcade’. The second album would contain more structure and melody, they decided. Yet though the word ‘cavalcade’ means formal procession and rolls off the tongue with a lovely cadence, you’ll find none of that on the album, which they made in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains with producer John ‘Spud’ Murphy.
“In all the world there’s no escape from this infernal din,” laments opening track ‘John L’ – the kind of thing a parent might say about the band – and with its juddering guitar and lofty lyrics about the procession of a king along Main Street, the song is recognisably Black Midi.
But when the band swing into second track ‘Marlene Dietrich’ they swiftly leave the din of the street behind, as “under soft lights / with her taped-back face / our soft-spoken queen / takes her place on the stage”. You hardly believe it’s lead singer Geordie Greep behind the cabaret mic and not the German singer herself. Regular listeners will be familiar with Greep’s shapeshifting singing: cowboys, Russians, Anohni, Scott Walker, David Bowie, Kermit the Frog. But now, his vocal theatrics seep out to affect the entire band.
The eight songs on ‘Cavalcade’ herd the band’s usual wash of chaotic sound into proggy order – most of the time. New instruments rise up in the mix: as well as sax and violin, there’s piano, flute, bassoons, bouzoukis, and a Marxophone. ‘Dethroned’ pitches cinematic sax down the bowling lane straight into skittering drums and a guitar played to sound like a synth. Short, operatic ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’ squeals to a car-crash halt. ‘Ascending Forth’, on the other hand, ambles through its atmospheric soundscape for ten minutes.
Album stand-out ‘Diamond Stuff’ begins as a protracted, un-Disneyfied version of Snow White’s ‘Heigh Ho’, and the shiny plucked notes are a relief after the madcap rage of ‘Slow’, and ‘Chondromalacia Patella’, which at times perfectly resembles the niggling, grating pain of ‘runner’s knee’. But no jolly Disney chorus arrives: instead, Greep’s vocals gradually come to life like some ancient slumbering beast.
‘Cavalcade’ doesn’t completely reincarnate Black Midi to win over listeners who may have found ‘Schlagenheim’ itchy, pretentious, or impenetrable. The band resisted pop’s demands for hook, melody, and structure on their first album, only to end up proving an occasional need for those demands – yes, even if you’re Black Midi. And so, the poppier moments on ‘Cavalcade’ gleam out like jewels in a shadowy mine, leaving you just convinced enough to keep digging.