Review Summary: All dadaist pom poms, no glee
Black Midi are a fiercely proficient group of competent songwriters and talented musicians. Good for them! They’re at the head of a wave of bands reskinning the ethos of experimental post-punk for a modern audience, and they frankly deserve to be there on both their own merits and the sketchy standard of competition. Their sound always seemed distinctly theirs despite how liberally they’ve spaded from the pantheon of jank-creep-rock cult classics (see: Recommended albums). Their interplay is watertight, their live recordings riveting, their popularity cemented and growing. They have everything a rock band in this day and age could ever hope for, and it’s a mystery to me that they are still incapable of translating this into a decent studio album.
Following from their ultradry math-noise debut Schlagenheim
sees the band revise their palette; they’re taking different cues here and directing them towards new ends. You can expect a less guitar-centric package, jazz and funk inflections aplenty, and more contrast than ever between melodies that are melodic and those that are not. Remarkable. At some points this carries a breath of inspiration; at others it’s ungainly and misgauged. The particulars here are interesting, and we’ll get there in due course (pledge), but it’s more revealing to start with Cavalcade
’s twin upshots: new tricks aside, Black Midi’s core sound is largely the same as it’s ever been on here, and the album as a whole is largely underwhelming in the same way that Schlagenheim
was. Some cutting of crap and confronting of central truths is in order:
I think the chief issue with Black Midi is that their aggressive experimentalism and dynamic songwriting both cater to a level of spectacle that their performance style largely fails to deliver, at least on record. Though they have moments of sternness, there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that runs throughout their performative delivery, whether it’s in their whiplash changes of tone or the now-notorious absurdist hullabaloo of mumblebumble frontman Geordie Greep. Unlike their troubled sibling group Black Country, No Road, the maladjusted Orin Incandenza of the nu-punk-postverse, Black Midi have enough pizzazz to keep this above the level of awful sardonic nothing-‘humour’, playing it off as a roadside nudge and a wink on a wild journey into the weird and wonderful. Huzzah! Why, then, does Cavalcade
feel so hopelessly over-rehearsed? Why do so few of their Very Unexpected plot twists pack the magic of creative spontaneity? With his seemingly inexhaustible creativity and panache, MVP drummer Morgan Simpson is the obvious exception here, but there’s a sterility to every other performance here that clouds the air like a bad smell in a clean cafe. The band introduce a brass section and “jazz” elements, but these are further tools to wind their arrangements tighter and tighter around a wearisome matrix of calculation that demands perfection and precision at the cost of the organic excitement that originally made their ancestor groups such a feckin’ hoot. Whether as a core trio or an expanded experimental big band, there’s a strain throughout these tracks, as though Black Midi as an entity would disappear in an instant if they ever veered off-book. If these guys have the slightest jam chemistry, they keep it well in reserve, and Cavalcade
sounds perplexingly airless as a result.
“Slow” is perhaps the best example of this, a restless back and forth between fast and (guessed it) not-fast sections, executed with a vocabulary that veers further into jazz fusion territory than anything else in the band’s canon. Do you enjoy 7th arpeggios? Better fucking hope so. They’re trotted out over the shop here, dreary theory exercises so perfectly well-behaved that all the track’s clamorous moments seem suspiciously arbitrary. It metamorphoses from fast to slow, loud to quiet, head to headache, start to end, with a premeditated soullessness that comes far too close for comfort to jazz fusion parody for the many people who really hate
that genre in all its silliness and stuffiness. I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the band laying down some of the most fluid dynamics on any contemporary rock album, or their somehow managing to pull this off as a pulseless chore.
In similar scenes, lead single “John L'' reduces initially exciting elements of free jazz harmony into glorified scale exercises; their approach to tonality may be challenging, but their overuse for cheap shock value within the role of a leitmotif makes it inevitable that they quickly lose their edge. It’s an unfortunate choice of opener in a similar way to Schlagenheim
’s “953”; just as that track debuted the world’s least exciting abrasive math-rock before abruptly flogging it to death, so too does “John L“ rehash formulated chaos to oblivion, leaving us desperately short of pauses for breath every step of the way. This eventually enters into the band’s calculations, but they spoil it by forcing their audience to play the age old avant-bore game of guess how many inconsistently shifting beats of silence we’re going to insert between each noisy punctuation this time
. It is exciting in the same way that the combination of traffic light intervals on a daily commute are exciting. The thrills “John L” and “Slow” shoot for are ambitious and, on paper, probably mind blowing, but they, like much of this album, are too tight for their own good. They do not take flight and they do not spark joy.
Black Midi being the movers and shakers that they are, this is far from the whole story: time for concessions, concessions, concessions [references references references
]. Many of their calculations pan out as satisfying choices. For starters, following on from “John L”’s tedious tumult, “Marlene Dietrich”’s volte-face foray into bossa nova is a short lived but enjoyably slick showstopper; not only is it a self-contained decent track, but there’s also an enjoyable in-joke of sorts in the band’s decision to play things straight for the first and only time in the style furthest from their usual ballpark. This is shown up by Greep’s Jamie Stewart-esque delivery, haunting but belied by a self-deprecating kind of hollow pomp. Good stuff. In other news, while “Chondromalacia Patella” noodles its way through too much indulgent clamour for my liking, it does culminate in a deliciously off-the-wall finale; the reverse applies to “Diamond Stuff”, a deconstruction of the post-rock skeleton that almost
vindicates my theory that the bands who ripped off “Good Morning, Captain” and “Nosferatu Man“ should spend more time trying their hand at “For Dinner…”. It misses the mark by attempting a relaxed form of climax to air things off, a slightly disappointing comedown in the wake of its stakes and tension, but the band preserve an air of mystery with their choice of chords and the track just about pulls through as one of their more worthwhile experiments.
However, as far as highlights go, “Dethroned” is easily top of the pack. The whole band flex their funk chops with newfound vigour, riding on post-punk rigidity at first, before knocking back enough layers of distortion and slick syncopations that their groove comes into its own. This thing hits
! It’s a blast, a thumper, a winner, and - get this! - a grinner! It’s the first piece here that sounds like it was played by people who genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and musical input; goodness knows that’s a stronger stepping stone to audience gratification than the shouldn’t I be impressed by this
-isms that pepper its preceding tracks! To this effect, “Hogwash and Balderdash” is a victory lap, belting out whacko bullshit over a thunderous montage of skronky thrills. It’s high octane, ridiculous, and just about splendid: for a moment it seems as though Black Midi have finally found their mojo and that Cavalcade
is bound to see itself out with a bang.
It’s a shame, then, that the infuriatingly protracted non-entity of a closer “Ascending Forth” comes round to piss the previous tracks’ excitement into the void, one sour note too many for the album to tie itself together at the last. Where does that leave things? Is Cavalcade
almost a good album? Well. Its moments of potential aren’t to be to be trifled with, but neither are they enough to elevate it from a stale sequence of overthought ideas, and this is a real tragedy given its stark contrast to the preview performance the band gave on KEXP back in April. It’s amazing what that visual link can do: in an instant, Greep goes from a plummy tape demon to a charismatic agent of chaos, the elongated shapes he and bassist Cameron Picton wank across their fretboards become captivating challenges of dexterity, the brass gang step up as a visceral force of accompaniment and blow notions of studio excess straight into the abyss, and, more than ever, Simpson is a born star having the time of his life. It’s like watching the Mos Eisley cantina band jerking off to Tera Melos for half an hour: now that’s
entertaining! That’s fun! That’s - dare I say it? - cool
! In this theatre, it’s obvious that Black Midi have something special, something live and organic that zigzags between their awkward chord fingerings and offbeat hammerings like the zany spirit of lopsided arthouse majesty, electric and ecstatic in its natural habitat. One can only wonder why they insist on pinning this down with such joyless, illusion-breaking gravity in the studio. Nice try, boys.