Album Review: black midi – Cavalcade

Band: black midi | Album:Cavalcade | Genre: Avant-prog, Zeuhl, RIO | Year: 2021

From: London, UK | Label: Rough Trade Records

For fans of: Frank Zappa, Magma, ni, John Zorn

Bandcamp

I mostly find my music through searching tags like “progressive metal,” “krautrock,” or “zeuhl” on Bandcamp, and I’ve found that’s a pretty good way to stay abreast of new releases. Some bands, though, put only low-effort, insufficiently descriptive tags on their Bandcamp pages (if they have a Bandcamp presence, at all), so about once a month, I’ll browse through the charts on RateYourMusic and ProgArchives to see if I’ve missed anything which might fall under the purview of this site. 

The tastes of RYM’s prog fans tend to skew in favor of the avant-garde and harsh, so when I saw that (as of writing), that site’s #1 record of 2021 so far was an avant-prog release from a band I’d never heard of, my curiosity was piqued. Avant-prog and brutal prog (a yocto-genre often featuring overbearing saxophone and aggressive, obtuse structures) are often hit-or-miss for me. Some of it is really daring and inventive, but a lot of it just strikes my ears as masturbatory weirdness and dissonance for the sake of weirdness and dissonance.

Cavalcade, the second full-length release from London-based band black midi, is an exciting, enthralling album that artfully blends the bizarre and bombastic with the restrained and melodic.

The album opens with “John L”, a track full of Zappa-esque jazzy riffs. The verses prominently feature rubbery bass beneath spoken-word vocals. The vocals were initially somewhat off-putting, but I’ve come to love them over repeated listens. Crashing piano adds to the sense of chaos as the song builds, and echoing effects on the vocals plunge “John L” headlong into a swirling fever dream. Piercing violins add a horror film vibe, and this song continues to up the ante throughout its five-minute runtime.

“Marlene Dietrich” goes in completely the opposite direction of its predecessor. This is a light, folk-jazz cut with a laid-back feel to it, and sappy strings are integrated wonderfully.

In contrast, “Chondromalacia Patella” begins with anxious, jazzy riffing that sounds like a math rock interpretation of mid-’70s King Crimson. The verses are mellow and melodic, though. This track is something of a middle ground between the two preceding songs. It’s not as furious and insane as “John L”, but it’s not as idyllic as “Marlene Dietrich”, either.

Notes of speedy, anxious jazz continue on “Slow”. The verses are technical yet subdued. There’s a wonderful guitar solo early on that sounds like it’s just about to go completely off the tracks, but it manages to hold together. Starting from this song’s midpoint, there’s a gradual buildup which sounds like it’s right off a Birds and Buildings album. Lush keys, assertive saxophone, and otherworldly rhythms converge beautifully.

The next track, “Diamond Stuff”, acts as a breather. Opening with harmonics played on an acoustic guitar plinking out a steady rhythm, embellishments of bass and synth pads add texture. Gently muttered vocals enter around two minutes in, and rich strings join to continue fleshing things out. The song’s second half is a lush, dreamy, psychedelic meditation full of deft drumming and murky textures that give the impression of floating.

“Dethroned” begins with pulsing stabs of clean guitar and twisting bass. The music builds in intensity, soon bringing it to black midi’s usual realm. The guitars have a post-punk icy, distorted echo to them. The rhythm is herky-jerky, and the song jumps from one idea to the next without feeling disjointed.

“Hogwash and Balderdash” sounds like an updated Cardiacs track with its punk drive, strange percussion, and seemingly disparate ideas which still somehow manage to gel.

Cavalcade closes on the 10-minute “Ascending Forth”. After opening with gentle acoustic balladry, brass and drums enter, giving this first movement a strong sense of upward movement. Considering some of the madness demonstrated earlier on this record, this is a relatively restrained track. Bass clarinet and saxophone add some great drama, and the transitions between this song’s peaks and troughs are sublime.

On this album, black midi have crafted something exciting and original. Cavalcade races by in a blur of jazz, math rock, folk, and more; but it doesn’t feel hurried or incomplete. It’s the rush of something so engaging and well-crafted, you lose track of time.

Score: 97/100

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