Black Midi have always maintained that they’ll never reach a final form. Though their debut album ‘Schlagenheim’ put them at the vanguard of British guitar music, and NME labelled them the “best band in London” before they’d even released a single, there was never any chance of the band settling into a predictable sound. “If we kept on doing the same stuff, we’d quit the band,” they said in a 2019 interview.
Even with this knowledge, the band’s second album ‘Cavalcade’ is a remarkable left turn. Across the album’s eight songs and 40 minutes, they traverse noise rock, unhinged jazz, ambient folk and beyond. Their claim in a past interview that their music would soon be “unrecognisable” from their initial form suddenly doesn’t seem so ridiculous. A band who defy expectation at every turn, the only predictable thing about Black Midi is that they’ll never stay the same.
Despite sounding lightyears away from traditional guitar music, the band’s original make-up – two guitars, bass, drums and vocals – at least appeared uniform to look at. On ‘Cavalcade’, the band – now a trio for the foreseeable future, with guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin taking time out for mental health reasons – change this up too, adding saxophone, violin and more to the mix, all contributing to the maelstrom of noise they whip up across its length.
They’re also clearly not averse to inviting others into their process. A new ‘golden ticket’ competition launched alongside the release of new single ‘Chondromalacia Patella’ contains a prize of collaborating with the band for a day in the studio (or life-long guestlist to their shows, or for the band to perform at an event of your choosing – they’re nothing if not flexible).
Squalls of violin open the album on ‘John L’, a deranged war cry of a first single. It periodically screeches to a halt before galloping away once again; unpredictability rules on a track that feels like a runaway train. Controlled moments do appear on ‘Cavalcade’ – ‘Diamond Stuff’ is a gorgeously delicate wonderland of soft strings and acoustic guitars, while ‘Marlene Dietrich’, a song about the titular cabaret singer, honours her craft and turns Black Midi into a bar band for a moment, with vocalist Geordie Greep their crooning frontman.
‘Slow’, another highlight, feels plucked from a jam session, where the band rise and fall as one through a skittish introduction that travels through a mystical midsection before coming to a head once again in a jazz-influenced explosion of noise defined by its jubilant saxophone. Then there’s ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’, which screeches to a halt after its introduction of frantic noise rock to float away in its new guise as a country song. Almost as if realising what’s just happened, the band then handbrake turn back into a whirlpool of blackened guitars. If you don’t need a lie down after this one, you’re stronger than us.
Frontman Geordie Greep’s vocals have been a standout feature of Black Midi since the band’s inception, his truly unique yelp pushing them even further away from any comparison to their peers. As with the music on ‘Cavalcade’, he manages to stretch his voice into unchartered territory here. On ‘Dethroned’, he gets close to crooner territory again, adding melody to the dissonance, while half way through ‘John L’, vocal effects make his booming voice sound like a master leading a war chant in The Lord Of The Rings.
Greep’s lyrical content also takes huge strides forward on the new album. Intent on telling theatrical third-person stories, the album tells tales of unhinged cult leaders (‘John L’), “an ancient corpse found in a diamond mine” (‘Diamond Stuff’) and much, much more. The lyrics – when they’re intelligible, at least – add yet another layer of weirdness and unpredictability to music already shaking at its foundations, ready to fall apart. (Greep wasn’t ever really singing platitudes, though – debut single ‘bmbmbm’ spoke of people who “find different ways to suck themselves off”.)
With regards to where Black Midi might go next, ‘Cavalcade’ poses far more questions than it does answers (as did ‘Schlagenheim’). One thing emphatically confirmed, though, is that they’re miles beyond the flash-in-the-pan buzz band some pre-emptively penned them as. Whatever form, sound or shape they might gravitate towards next, it’s certain that they’re here to stay, and their intense fire shows no danger of burning out.
Black Midi will almost definitely never make easily digestible or understandable music – they’re probably as excited and confused about where they’re heading next as we are – but to focus on the finer points and try to make sense of it would be to miss the overall point of the band. Simply going down the rabbit hole with these deeply weird, brilliant musicians will never be less than exhilarating.
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: May 28