I was surprised to learn that Black Midi went to the Brit School. All four members of the post-punk, post-rock south London band – now seen as the trailblazers of a movement also followed by Black Country, New Road, Squid and Fontaines DC – attended the Croydon performing arts college known for having churned out some of the biggest names in earnest, mainstream pop, including Adele and Leona Lewis. What help could such a school have been to Black Midi, who play sprawling, menacing music that seems disinterested in whether anyone is even listening or not?
It wasn’t clear on Schlagenheim, the quartet’s 2019 debut record, which solidified Black Midi’s status as “the weirdest buzz band of the year”, and it isn’t on Cavalcade, their second album, out on Friday 28 May and released via Rough Trade Records, either. The wide-ranging, no-holds-barred attitude to songwriting that so entranced audiences and critics on their debut record is still here, as lead guitarist and vocalist Geordie Greep, bassist Cameron Picton and drummer Morgan Simpson forge another proggy, labyrinthic path into experimental guitar music. This time, it comes more drenched in jazz – with rolling drums and horn breaks, and nods to King Crimson and Sun Ra – than ever before. (Guitarist and vocalist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin has taken some time away from the band due to mental health issues and wasn’t involved with the recording of Cavalcade.)
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It’s honourable that Black Midi have taken their impressive instrumental talent and shaped it into something wholly, bracingly their own – and no surprise that the majority of the music press has welcomed such experimentalism with open arms. But a progressive mindset only gets a band so far, and Black Midi’s total disinterest in melodic engagement, comprehensible lyrics or recognisable song structures makes for tiring listening.
There’s a strange theatricality to album opener “John L”. Greep has an elastic voice and a geographically unclassifiable accent that has had him compared to everyone from Mark E Smith to Shirley Bassey, and here he takes on a faux almost-Irish accent, his tongue heavy in his throat as he sings. Over a frenetic guitar riff and cutting violin, he tells of a bizarre cast of local characters, gathered in a main square for some public event: “This is the scene on Main Street when John L comes to town,” he repeats, like a retrospective town crier. But he won’t settle for fiction. His lyrics – when you can make them out – are overwhelmingly self-aware: “This garbling non-song whips throng into frenzy,” he calls, as the song near disintegrates beneath him, and, without any real drive, then falls back into place, fast and disjointed.
And then, just as suddenly, they’re soft and thoughtful. The following track, “Marlene Dietrich”, is a quasi-sentimental ballad, backed by a tangled, out of tune string section. Such a contrast between tracks could come across as exciting onstage; on record, it’s confusing. Breadth and a variety of tone are sought-after features of a good record, but a through-line is required to believe both facets equally. There’s no such consistency here, as Black Midi side-step from the thundering piano and horn-fuelled “Slow” into the tender shuffle of “Diamond Stuff” without so much as a glance back.
The band play with a knowingness that feels exclusionary. Worse, at moments in which you’d expect them to be light-hearted, they are utterly sincere. On “Ascending Forth”, the near ten minute-long eighth and final track, they toy with soulfulness, but miss the mark. Repeatedly, Greep sings “Everyone loves ascending fourths”, a musical term made into a pun on the final line – “Markus ascends forth/In the heart of the common man” – that could have raised a smile, if they had attempted to broach it with even a glimmer of light-heartedness. The album ends on one long held chord, like an orchestral suite might.
These are talented musicians, but their arrangements are self-indulgent. Listening to Cavalcade, I wonder what I’m meant to be getting from it. Do Black Midi know something I don’t? Am I so primitive as to want just a handful of melodies I can discern, and more than a few lines of lyrics I can make out? It’s disappointing too that for all this contortion, Cavalcade is notably less experimental than their first album. In 2018 Greep declared that in two years’ time Black Midi’s music would be “unrecognisable compared to what it is today”. But the band have in no way rewritten their own rule book for this second record. And if it’s not breaking the boundaries its own creators set out to fracture, this ethereal, messy and non-melodic music isn’t doing much at all.