The existence of black midi as a band should be used as primary evidence that reality is simply a simulation whose source code has been written by either Kurt Vonnegut or David Mitchell. This is not because of how strange its aesthetic is, although there aren’t many acts out there that can claim to rival it, but because of how it’s managed to captivate such a large portion of music fandom with their undefinable variation of rock.
For the most part, it doesn’t seem like audiences or the critical sphere knows what to make of them, aside from the fact that they are undeniably exciting. This whiplash is probably why so many were quick to place them in the same haphazardly conceived “UK experimental post-punk” movement as other bizarre rock groups from the scene. However, even on their debut record, black midi sounded slightly removed from such categorization. As if to prove that this wasn’t a fluke, their freshly released sophomore project Cavalcade feels like a band actively pruning itself from the musical zeitgeist.
Schlagenheim challenged all of the conventions of noise and experimental rock while maintaining the youthful spirit and lack of self-importance that gave those genres their potency in the first place. It certainly has the energy of a debut. Cavalcade, on the other hand, feels like an entirely different beast altogether. Putting aside the vast and numerous sonic departures, there is a definitive atmosphere on Cavalcade that is completely removed from its predecessor. It seems as though black midi have approached the project with a heightened seriousness, as if to say “Well, we had our fun, now it’s time to really dive into the trenches.” Of course, there is a fine line to walk between seriousness and pretentiousness, especially with a band of their technical prowess, but their apparent lack of any overarching mantra naturally voids any potential pretense.
Our discussion begins with the opener “John L.” If there was any resistance to the idea that black midi isn’t out to be a crowd-pleaser, this track instantly quells it. Horns and guitars and drums are all layered precisely on top of each other often with total silence taking refuge in the space between. Every note feels like a blunted dagger being thrust through the chest. It’s one thing to take on this Frippian psychosis by itself; if one were going to do so, the Jodorowsky-meets-Teletubbies-styled music video is the way to go.
But the choice to follow it immediately with easily the most relaxed and pleasant song they’ve ever done is somehow more shocking than anything that happened on “John L.” The band ventures into late 60’s era prog on “Marlene Dietrich.” This is where it becomes clear that Geordie Greep has been developing his singing from Schlagenheim to Cavalcade. It reveals a softer nuance to his voice that was previously unexplored.
The middle portion of Cavalcade arguably works as one large suite that consists of several different pieces. There is a greater emphasis on transitions between songs, with the effortless glide between the dreamy soundscape of “Diamond Stuff” and the groovy punk rock of “Dethroned” being a particularly spectacular example of this. The album then finishes out with the nearly ten-minute avant prog epic “Ascending Forth”, which sees the band stretching their pathos as far as they can. Much like the title suggests, it certainly reaches the highest peak on Cavalcade, with the final moments reminiscent of the end credit curtain roll of a 1930s musical drama (perhaps the Marlene Dietrich reference was not as innocuous as previously thought). It’s the perfect closer to a project that feels so confident in its ambition.
Lyrically speaking, a first glance would suggest that black midi are working with the same cryptic and absurd messaging that defined much of their early work. But much like the first project, we would be ignoring the details that lie under the surface. Cavalcade goes even deeper, as it seems to be tying in a larger theme across its seemingly disparate track ideas. Each song presents the concept of a fall from grace in some manner. “John L.” tells the story of a cult leader whose members turn on him. “Slow” lays out the existential quandary that our only interaction with time is the process of it leaving us.
Unsurprisingly, the track that brings this all together is “Ascending Forth,” which, aside from the clever double meaning (ascending fourths), really gets at the heart of why the band decided to focus on such a dour subject. On the track, we are told the story of Markus, an artist living among orthodox monks who is struggling to create. We see him toil with his own ideas and just as he is about to finish his masterpiece, he is dragged out in chains to be persecuted “For testing good faith / To try, and to risk, and to fail / Unanimously condemned.” It seems that black midi is outlining its own fear of falling short, of having to come up with something that could match the level of success of Schlagenheim. That is not to say that they aren’t confident with their own art; the last lines of “Ascending Forth” all but spell out their own fervent belief. Rather, it is a nervousness of putting it out to the world and thus giving up control of it.
If I could say anything to the band, I would say that they don’t need to worry about reception. A large portion of the appeal towards them comes from their complete disinterest in appealing towards others. In the age of streaming, where someone can click off a song in an instant, it’s unbelievably refreshing to find a group so willing to alienate. Cavalcade is the apotheosis of alienation, diving as far down into the uncanny valley as it possibly can. It is only at this point that it truly ascends forth.
Daily Arts writer Andrew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.