Album Review: black midi – ‘Cavalcade’

‘Cavalcade’ (noun): a long line or procession of people, riders or carriages, often as part of a ceremony. In the creation of their aptly named second album, black midi have certainly created a procession of characters and sounds, chronicling the lives of characters both real and imaginary, from the fall of a cult leader to the life of Golden Era legend Marlene Dietrich.

The follow up to Mercury Prize-nominated Schlagenheim, Calvacade has less a sense of frenzy and more of complexity and experimentalism, as well as a concentrated lyrical narrative throughout each track. Opener John L charts the trajectory of a cult leader and his eventual fall from grace, and features dissonant guitars and rapid stop-starts that are typical black midi, rising and rising with the repeated phrases. Discordant arpeggios and screeching guitars are clear references to the previous album, but the tone is somewhat different, perhaps a touch more reserved.

The following track, Marlene Dietrich, is a complete about-face for the band, and when Geordie Greep’s surprisingly rich and sultry vocals begin you may be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly started listening to a different album, or even artist. A completely unrecognisable sound for black midi, Marlene Dietrich is an ode to the eponymous German cabaret artist and re-imagines her performance from the point of view of an audience member, swapping out the usual math rock riffs and Greep’s nasal sneering for bossa nova rhythms and tones more akin to an antebellum Parisian chanteuse. Chondromalacia Patella, a reference to the malady of runner’s knee, harks back to their earlier sound with rhythmic waves of full sound but interspersed with calmer piano and Greep’s new subtler vocals. The track swerves between peaceful crooning and frenzied guitar wails with constant tempo changes finishing with a stratospheric guitar and drum riff, courtesy of Greep and faultless drummer Morgan Simpson, which threatens to explode.

‘Not only does the album reflect the band’s natural growth and maturation since their debut material, but a change in perspective’

This surprising new tenderness that we are hearing from the band, formerly so mercurial, is refreshing and represents an intriguing change in the writing style as well as line-up: the loss of their guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin and addition of saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi and keys player Seth Evans. Though half of the album was written and constructed pre-Covid, the remainder was created in the wake of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. As a result, not only does the album reflect the band’s natural growth and maturation since their debut material, but also a change in perspective and musical process during this time, in part due to their inability to jam and write together. The album showcases a more collaborative writing process, with each band member individually writing rather than collaborative jamming sessions from which a track with emerge and which were understandable preventing during lockdown.

Diamond Stuff, one of two tracks written by bassist Cameron Picton, seems to sparkle gently, as the name may suggest. The track is inspired by a novel of the same name, and tells the story of a corpse preserved in an ancient peat bog which is eventually rediscovered in a diamond mine. The instrumentation is delicate throughout, featuring a broad range of instruments including a cello, a lap steel, and a wok (yes, you read that right), while the murky vocals blend into the rich texture of the track itself. This sharing of the mantle of vocals and song-writing allows a greater breadth of style, as well as perhaps allowing more outside influences to be heard, particularly form the band’s contemporaries.

Diamond Stuff has echoes of Jerkcurb’s Shadow Show while John L and Marlene Dietrich feature violins from the band’s south London friend and fellow musician Jerskin Fendrix, Diamond Stuff effortlessly segues into Dethroned, beginning peacefully and serenely but building until it breaks into a multi-instrumental funk, featuring an irresistible bassline and trumpet-like guitar squeaks and culminating in a tumult of noise. From there, Hogwash and Balderdash takes up the mantle of frenzied math rock that we know so well, featuring cowbell and Greep’s overarching and somewhat unsettling vocals. Yet, even these raucous moments take on a different tone to those of the previous album, indeed there seems to be more moderation and sophistication within black midi’s sound than we have heard before. Ascending Forth draws the album to a close almost like a lullaby, yet another of these abrupt changes in style which seem so prevalent throughout this album. As the track begins to build, it begins to feel more and more like familiar terrain, though still remaining careful and gentle.

Fans of Shlagenheim will not be disappointed, but indeed nor will those of you who were perhaps unconvinced by black midi’s first offering. Cavalcade represents a period of severe development and growth, representing a body of work with a skill and experience beyond what might be expected of the young band. Featuring a smattering of their classic rock influences, Cavalcade is a supreme step up for black midi and a feast for the ears, less frantic and more measured but still very much in essence a slightly unhinged and bewildering black midi masterpiece.

Written by: Freya Martin

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of black midi via Facebook.