Since the release of their first single in 2018, Black Midi have won gushing praise from critics, revered musicians (including Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Tweedy and Steve Albini) and obsessive devotion from fans for their blend of jazz fusion, prog, math rock and much more.
For their second album, Cavalcade, the Brit School graduates have apparently relied less on improvisation and jamming to come up with new material – as was the case for their first album, 2019’s Mercury-nominated Schlagenheim.
Material for Cavalcade was instead written by individual members of the band – Geordie Greep (guitar, vocals), Cameron Picton (bass, vocals), and Morgan Simpson (drums) – at home and brought to rehearsals prior to recording sessions last summer during the gap in lockdowns.
Cavalcade’s 42 minutes totally reflect the fact that its genesis was more thought-out and considered in the studio. After a minute-long instrumental that sounds like an elephant playing a trombone accompanied by guitar feedback, the album kicks off with the untamed beast that is ‘John L‘.
The track, released as the lead single from the album in March, is carried by an intricate guitar riff, percussive bass, and what sounds like a marching band on ecstasy, courtesy of Simpson.
On ‘John L‘, Greep’s commanding vocal performance is the biggest surprise. The more dramatic style found on Schlagenheim – which has previously seen him compared to Jeff Buckley and Shirley Bassey – is switched for something a bit more masculine and drawly.
Black Midi’s second guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin missed the recording sessions for Cavalcade, due to mental health issues, and as a result his tumultuous guitar sound is sadly absent from the album.
To make up for his absence, the band is superbly bolstered by saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi and keyboard player Seth Evans – both of whom currently feature in the band’s live line-up.
Akinnibi, especially, really shines on Cavalcade, whether he’s adding beautiful drawn-out notes (‘Dethroned‘), a screeching layer to the cacophony (‘Ascending Forth‘), or doubling up Greep’s dextrous guitar lines (‘Slow‘).
In ‘Marlene Dietrich’, Greep plucks nylon strings and croons about the ‘soft spoken queen’ who ‘takes her place on the stage’, while Picton adds Danny Thompson-like bass flourishes backed by Simpson’s soft jazz brushes. It’s gorgeous.
‘Chondromalacia Patella‘, meanwhile, named after a painful knee condition, is a complex web of funky guitar and shifting time signatures, leading to a crazed, jazz-prog freak out.
But for me, the highlight of the album is Picton’s eerie six-minute ode to a corpse in a diamond mine, ‘Diamond Stuff’. Picton gently plucks a bouzouki before being joined by flute and Greep on lap steel, leading to a delicate but multi-layered climax, just slightly evocative of the more otherworldly moments on Radiohead’s In Rainbows.
The shortest track on the album is one that King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp would have been proud of – ‘Hogwash and Balderdash‘ is the aural equivalent of an evil scheme, with some fat, satisfying root notes and scary dissonance.
Finally, the nearly 10-minute-long closing track, ‘Ascending Forth‘, sees Greep going off-piste with the pun ‘everyone loves ascending fourths’ repeated. The tune builds to a euphoric conclusion and a very tongue-in-cheek ending – a deliberately sustained chord, possibly a nod to the E major at the end of Sgt Pepper and corny show tunes from the early 20th century.
In interviews around the time of Schlagenheim’s release, the band mentioned key influences such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Death Grips and Can, among others. But overall, on Cavalcade, a wider range of other, perhaps less esoteric influences come to the fore – most notably, Greep’s fondness for more ‘poppy’ bands including The Police and The Blue Nile.
If there’s any criticism, some of the gnarly bumps and edges that made Schlagenheim so exhilarating appear to have been sanded down – but admittedly, this gives way to a lushness on Cavalcade that wasn’t present on its predecessor.
With Cavalcade, Black Midi are really branching out, and prove to the world that they’re not one of the many bands intent on replicating a successful debut album. Excitingly, the members have already completed ‘four or five songs’ for album number three, they recently revealed to The Face. That’s lucky, because I’m hungry for more right now.
Cavalcade is out now on Rough Trade.