I was there in the summer of 2019. I was at the Canal Street Black Midi show that birthed their first live album. Playing in what was essentially a glorified shipping container, the four-piece chewed through an abbreviated set as the crowd, glued together with sweat, leapt up and down frantically in ecstasy.
Devoted (or unemployed) enough to catch the band at 4pm, we revelled in the precision chaos, swelling and dissipating in perfect unison before our eyes. Walking out of the show, a mood of instant camaraderie set in among the crowd: a mutual feeling that we had survived something.
Part of that was surely heat exhaustion, but it was undeniable that the Black Midi of 2019 had a deadly mystique about them, that the band were channeling some otherworldly chaos that could barely be contained. If you died in the process, so be it.
The Black Midi of today is an entirely different beast. With second guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin taking a step back, the band have taken the newfound lack of distortion as an open invitation to divest from any leftover “punk” pretensions. The angular rockisms and screeching brutality of Schlagenheim are yesterday’s news, replaced with delicate touches of jazz fusion, ambient folk and an oddly soothing orchestral palette of prominent horns and strings. Compared to the barebones, pit beatdown ferocity of Schlagenheim, Cavalcade plays out like a plush night at the opera.
For those already in the know, Cavalcade’s loose atmosphere will certainly come as a surprise following album opener “John L.” Easily the closest that Black Midi comes to replicating the thrashing hysteria of their debut, the track crashes in with a spiky violin-doubled guitar riff and tears through stop-start instrumental acrobatics with unnerving confidence and chilling accuracy. It’s a train of endless breakdowns, seeming to test out every possible way to dissolve a groove at the same time. By far the album’s most thrilling moment, it’s a fitting coda to their early style, a blockbuster apocalypse before the full-scale reboot to follow.
Track 2 kicks off Cavalcade’s obsessive turn towards pushing the extremes of their multifaceted style even further off the map. If it weren’t for singer Georgie Greep’s maddening need to treat every bar as a chance to show off how little disregard he has for constructing a genuine vocal hook, “Marlene Dietrich”’s grotesque jazz pop might slot in nicely to a summer road trip playlist. “Chondromalacia Patella” disarms you with soft orchestral treats — a tender piano line here, the plinking of glockenspiel there, a wash of white-noise synthesizer underneath — just as drummer Morgan Simpson primes an army of squealing horns to bash your eardrums in at the close.
Bassist Cameron Picton takes lead on the next pair of tunes, winding his deadpan vocals through Greep’s gently pulsating guitar and Simpson’s tireless hi-hat flourishes and explosive tom work for “Slow” before “Diamond Stuff” takes a languid psychedelic detour, floating downstream on in cinematic post-folk haze that’s part Grizzly Bear, part Stereolab and hands down the prettiest Black Midi have ever sounded. The band’s commitment to hunting their wildest fantasies and trusting their phenomenal instrumental instincts to cut them out of any potential danger makes Cavalcade’s first act a fitting reward for the oracular vertigo you’ll have to overcome.
Unfortunately, the record’s closing trio of tracks finds the band losing this hard-won compositional steam. Despite working to great effect on “Chondromalacia Patella,” the gnarled back-and-forth interplay of “Dethroned” quickly outlives its usefulness, evolving into a tiresome repetition that circles the drain for far too long before washing out. The cartoonishly heavy “Hogwash and Balderdash” feels unfinished despite cramming in an ungodly collection of riffs into its abbreviated two and a half minute runtime, a problem that somehow persists on the over nine minute closer, “Ascending Forth,” which constantly nods towards something greater while failing to find a climax worth the price of admission.
Black Midi sounds unfocused, stringing together ideas that don’t hit nearly as hard as expected. Hearing them sift through a growing pile of false endings, it feels like the band have simply lost track of the plot.
For better or worse, you’ll find yourself at a loss at Cavalcade’s end, shipwrecked at the end of an absurdist voyage through the unstable minds of three musicians who are still grasping the weight of their abilities and the depths of their ambitions. Their youthful spirit and lack of self-seriousness is something to be thankful for. Rather than produce a feel-good, face-saving retread of their most reliable showstoppers, Black Midi pushes you into a fifth dimensional funhouse and locks the doors. It’s good to be clowned on every once in a while. It builds character.
Essential Tracks: “John L,” “Slow” and “Diamond Stuff”