Album Review: black midi – Cavalcade (ROUGH TRADE)
Catching my breath in glacial October air, I nurse a set of bruises dealt to me from Salford’s White Hotel. On this particular night, many shadowy men have lost lines of cocaine to full crowd mosh pits, bartered from their bare forearms to the sweat drenched darkness of the floor. Tonight’s frontman entertainer Geordie Greep passes me in conversation, adorned in his signature ankle duster and ushanka. A bystander is listening perceptively as Greep describes how his energy has been sapped due to some severe knee pain. Three weeks later, this small detail comes into mind when a creative number – Chondromalacia Patella makes it’s live debut. A song I’m ninety nine percent certain is about this incident.
In studio form, Chondro is a belter of a tune. Running its course playing out like the shifting of the seasons. The lyrics are all about the convalescence of a patient suffering with runners knee. Full of artsy terms such as ‘white rocks’ describing bones, ‘pink mould’ as flesh, and ‘air passing through’ as damage to the Cartilage during treatment. This fantastic lyricism is only to be backed up by instrumentation just as strong. The group have now hired two additional jazz musicians (Seth Evans – Keys/Kaidi Akinnibi – Sax) to help build their ever growing musical tapestry. Greep’s diminished guitar chords back up Evans’ heavenly keys as they drop in and out of the mix, sounding like the Mahavishnu Orchestra being ordered to write a christmas song, before circling off down crossroads of noisy jazz punk. I haven’t even mentioned the insane Sabbath-esque prestissimo finish that puts the icing on the cake for it’s unpredictable brilliance, or Greep’s vocal delivery. One that is sharper than a whetted spear, especially by the second half, where his performance is just as manaical as a Disney villian in his spotlight moment.
Sure, this theatricality isn’t new to the black midi canon, but here it’s so much more confident than on anything we’ve heard so far, and that thread runs throughout all of Cavalcade. Just seconds into the album, the storm tossed John L breaks all rules of convention. Picton’s Bass is strummed at breakneck speed while shrieking violins (played by Jerskin Fendrix) thunder ominously throughout. Greep provides a riff that I almost broke my arm trying to learn on guitar, while Morgan Simpson carries weights, playing a disoriented musical staircase on the skins. Greep’s lyrics come in the form of modern Shakespeare, depicting a society having to obey to it’s fascist king. It’s gore filled lyrics are just awe inspiring. Something confirmed as Greep gives a nonchalant spoken word delivery, discussing crowds feeding on human flesh. The track is dramatised instrumentally with false endings, leaving behind a set of pregnant silences, only to be broken once by a plane flying overhead (an accidental sonic fault sent by the gods themselves). It’s baleful rumble births the musical partner to the raging storm inside John L’s double dealing followers.
At times black midi go completely against the grain and do something no one would ever expect. Every single time, the outcome creates something more layered, mature and focused than their already spectacular debut. Take Marlene Dietrich for instance. A track where Greep sings in a melodic baritone, seasoned with lap steel guitars and violins, with a nod to the bossa nova greats in Simpson’s percussive choices. Not overstaying its welcome, it asks for repeated listens in it’s perfect pacing. Thanks to Greep’s descriptive lyrics, we are effortlessly placed behind the eyes of an admiring onlooker about to watch Marlene Dietrich play ‘The Blue Angel‘ in the theatre circa 1930. Greep’s improved vocals and lyrics remain just as engaging on the ten minute closing track Ascending Forth, an epic stripped back number about an author struggling with writers block trying to finish his novel. It paints images of the censorship of writers in Stalin era Russia in trenches of text by the latter half, with some visionary lyricism. ‘At daybreak, men arrive in droves forcing the door. His work unfinished, they do not accept and throw him to the floor. He comes to in chains‘. Greep’s breathy vocal delivery on these two makes for epic statements as soon as the breath leaves his lips.
In contrast, Pitcton’s modernist tracks break up the theatricality of Greep’s by the mid point. Slow is Speedway‘s evil cousin. A track heavily reliant on a bassy riff fluctuating in limbo. Simpson plays along to this with some hypnotic accented drum passages, making for an ever inviting, yet paradoxically unsettling listen, only to leave the listener short of breath by it’s finality. In it’s lyrics Picton throws his weight into the scales about his coronavirus paranoia circa February 2020, proved to be as unsettling as the track itself. It sounds like the final observations from a disinterested man on his deathbed.
The following track Diamond Stuff also comes from Picton’s pen. Something I am lenient to call an ‘experience’ rather than a song . Named after a politically active modernist novella by Isabael Weidner, Picton takes on a similar writing approach stylistically. He describes a protagonist who passes away, his body drifts down the wasteland, and is only to be found years later by miners. As the track eddies out, Picton’s vocals are scaled into the midst of an innovative (almost shoegazey) whirlpool of instruments. Marxophone, flute, lap steel, synths and a wok (yes, from Simpson’s kitchen) create something I can only describe as a musical out of body experience. It’s frankly the best song i’ve heard in ages.
Spectacular closers aren’t a one trick pony either. Dethroned follows in similar fashion, where producer John “Spud” Murphy uses reverb to his advantage, creating a new type of art rock, altering the effect from gradual to intense, until the track sounds like it’s tottering off the edge of a cliff. Something that is fitting with the fate of Greep’s unfortunate character. This is one that will certainly stir audiences in live performances. As will be Hogwash and Balderdash. Another forward thinking moment, ending up being the most slapstick thing to be heard on wax this year. A dark and twisted piece of musical circus entertainment that I am struggling to describe in words.
Rather than a continuation in sound, this is an evolution for black midi. They know that making the same album twice can make their sound stale, and that very much isn’t the case here. The lyrics all share the same thematic style, finalising in something that sounds more concise, like some kind of statement on society’s wrongdoings. As the final crescendo of Ascending Forth closes out the record, I think back to a time sat in a bar with a friend circa early 2019. I say “black midi are the best band in the UK and i’m super excited about them“, in which he replies “they probably aren’t even at their peak yet. They look 12.” And now I sit and wonder what exactly is around the corner for black midi?
Key Tracks: John L, Marlene Dietrich, Chondromalacia Patella, Slow, Diamond Stuff, Dethroned, Hogwash and Balderdash, Ascending Forth
Cavalcade is released via Rough Trade Records on Fri May 28.