ALBUM REVIEW: Black Midi bewilders and berates the ‘Cavalcade’

Black Midi, Cavalcade, Black Midi Cavalcade

London trio Black Midi has been labeled as being post-punk, experimental, noise and math rock. While “experimental” is certainly applicable, it doesn’t quite do the band justice. Following the critical acclaim of 2019’s Schlagenheim, Cavalcade, plays like a fever dream pressed onto 12-inch vinyl.

Black Midi
Rough Trade, May 28

The band’s surreal, polytonal, ambient and syncopated performance comes across as deeply inspired by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s lauded masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. However, when Geordie Greep, Cameron Picton and Morgan Simpson aren’t totally throwing out the rules of common songwriting with conflicting melodies, tempos and esoteric lyrics, they take a more subdued approach on calmer pieces with ample jazz influence to contrast the utter chaos.

Opener “John L” jumps right at the listener with rapid snare and electric guitar strikes, which are later joined by backing horns and what can only be described as random piano key slamming. No two instruments seem to be trying to enhance the melody of the other as the inconsistency sews a deep sense of unease. The spoken, rhythmic vocals detail the journey of a disgraced cult leader who has lost influence over his followers.

It’s followed by “Marlene Dietrich,” an ode to the famous cabaret singer and actress. The acoustic guitar-led piece is significantly softer, backed with a subdued bass, percussion, and the gradual implementation of stings. We return to the surreal with “Chondromalacia Patella,” named after the condition (runner’s knee) in which the cartilage behind the kneecaps is worn down, causing a constant dull pain for those who have it. Rolling snare accompanies the plucky electric guitar and rumbling bass, with a smooth, jazzy breakdown about a third of the way into the song. It comes across as a sort of mashup between hardcore and funk, which surprisingly works in the context of the album.

“Slow” takes on a deep, mysterious and ominous presence with rumbling, distorted guitar and bass pairing. The harmonized vocals evoke feelings of frustration and a sort of deathly omen through the lyrics. “Dethroned,” with its bass-led melody and snapping, rolling snares, bring a soothing and calming presence to the album. What is easily the most accessible song, lyrically, it follows a once esteemed narrator who eventually falls from grace, no longer in control of his circumstances. It sounds like a continuation of “John L,” but told from his perspective.

The clamoring cacophony of cowbell and off-key guitar on “Hogwash and Balderdash” brings the album back into Trout Mask Replica territory, with the alliterative and seemingly nonsensical chaos of the lyrics: “Hogwash and balderdash/ Chickens from the pen/ Surveying the beaches/ Of Salafessien.” It feels deeply self-aware, as Black Midi knows it’s bringing the audience down the maddening rabbit hole.

The album concludes with the nine-minute “Ascending Faith,” which revives the calming acoustic elements of “Marlene Dietrich” with some backing organ and strings. The song details the events of an artist struggling to complete his masterpiece, before being apprehended by the government and having his work smeared for not meeting the standard of expectation—a very on-the-nose metaphor for the album.

Black Midi set out to make a statement about the collective psychology of people in groups, hence the title Cavalcade. While it does veer off course from the central concept, the album manages to stir minds with subversive songwriting structure and challenging prose of its lyrical content.

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