Rather than place their fingers on the pulse of rock music, Black Midi have decided to grab some defibrillators, and shock the living hell out of it. Since their first bout of singles leading up to 2019’s Schlagenheim, the UK-based rock group have been pumping out jazz-infused, heart-racing music we haven’t really seen since groups like King Crimson. And once again, on Cavalcade, they broaden their horizons with a reality-shifting record that toes the line between pure, unabashed noise, and smooth, 20th century croons.
Though less peppy and inherently jazzy than some of King Crimson’s greatest works, Black Midi are bridging the gap between their two brands of music rather quickly. The rapid strings that initiate the constant stoppage of instrumentation on “John L” are very similar to the combination of saxophones and percussion on Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Less melodic, yes, and a little scarier, but Cavalcade‘s album opener sounds like you pushed 70s prog rock down an elevator shaft with some hellish surprises.
Unlike their prior record, though, Cavalcade has a soft side—one that shows itself both inside and outside of the pummeling chaos. Taking a break from their devilish narration, “Marlene Dietrich” discards metallic and harsh instrumentation for pillowy croons and loving orchestration. A borderline love song about the late actress, Black Midi once again tell a story, but one full of stars, stages, and glamour: “Under soft lights with a taped back face / Our soft-spoken queen takes her place on the stage.”
Lying inside some of the most insidious parts of the record are more references to a familiar, comfortable, often 20th century-referencing harmony. “Hogwash and Balderdash”—which starts off with a constant, startling, clanging sound—periodically dodges the doom-and-gloom bass riffs through the same quick, acoustic melody, eventually distorting into an almost cartoony sound. The latter half of “Slow” is riddled with background saxophones that bring me back to my parent’s home, watching Full House late at night. And what should be almost universally recognized is the theatrical ending to “Ascending Forth” (the closing track): a long, rising note indicating the end of whatever’s being played.
The innate balance made between these two sounds creates a distorted reality that mimics our past in some of the most disturbing ways possible. The thematic purpose for this isn’t completely clear, but there are certainly potential lessons to gain along the journey through a twisted realm. Whether it’s to warp our perspective of a past that many glorify, or to simply laugh at a personally-constructed, maddening world, Black Midi’s Cavalcade is a one-of-a-kind record that initiates thought whether you’d like it to or not.
Through this, Black Midi are able to broaden their sonic landscape, opting to delve deeper into both extreme quiet and loud. And the band is more dynamic as a result. Certain tracks don’t offer up much noise at all; “Diamond Stuff” brings a hushed ominous environment led by lightly-plucked strings and foreboding hums that climb to one of the brightest parts of the record. Yet, on “Dethroned,” the guitars’ collective shrieks overwhelm the ears with shouted, echoed vocals, and percussion tailor-made for math rock rhythms.
Cavalcade is a continuation of everything that made Schlagenheim great, but I don’t know if I’d say the two records are similar. While Schlagenheim was a great initial representation of Black Midi’s potential, Cavalcade goes further thematically and sonically, exploring each and every piece of the band’s sound while creating an otherworldly space. It’s a more well-rounded project, as a sophomore attempt should be, but one that will have your mind spinning among the harsh, complex rhythms and eerily familiar past.