More chaotic, more cohesive
It wasn’t so long ago that black midi turned the music world on its head. The band of raucous Londoners, alongside contemporaries like Black Country, New Road and Squid, signaled the coming of a new British invasion, albeit one that was bolder, more experimental and less immediately accessible than the one that the Beatles helmed in the ‘60s. But the thing about sudden bursts of popularity is that they tend to die down. In today’s fast-moving world, this is especially true. But if the world was looking to shake black midi off of its back, then black midi intended to become a parasitic backpack. Though the way they’ve chosen to do this is not through an ill-advised pivot to some trendy sound but by revising and reshaping their own idiosyncratic profile into something more chaotic and more cohesive.
When Cavalcade kicks off with “John L,” there is an immediate sense that the ride you have strapped into will mimic that of their debut album Schlagenheim. People could hardly be blamed for the assumption. “John L” boasts the same manic energy of tracks like “Speedway” and “bmbmbm,” but there’s something ever so slightly different that only becomes apparent to the astute or repeat listener. Despite the powerful burst of sound and a cacophonic avalanche of instruments mashing into one another, there is a greater sense of order in the track than was present on much of Schlagenheim. It’s almost as if Les Claypool had a guest feature on a Hella track. But if the difference between this track and their previous efforts was not immediately apparent, it will become apparent on “Marlene Dietrich.”
“Marlene Dietrich” flips any previous understanding of black midi on its head. It’s as if they’re directly responding to criticisms of their madcap, improvisational style. Instead of a roaring tornado of sound, their stellar instrumental skill is softened into something befitting a mid-Paris jazz lounge. It’s almost too jarring at first and could even be considered off-putting were it not for the powerful sense of reverence and beauty contained within the track. But even this is not meant to last, the next two tracks, “Chondromalacia Patella” and “Slow,” retrieve the pace of “John L.” These tracks make greater use of softness than “John L” though, as if “Marlene Dietrich” taught the boys how to chill out ever so slightly. The instruments remain fast and flashy; they’re just turned to seven instead of being cranked to 11 for the entirety of the track. Jarring as this shift is, it fits the boys rather well.
This shift is carried into “Diamond Stuff,” which reclaims the slower, more deliberate pace of “Marlene Dietrich” to create a dreamlike interlude before the final run of tracks. Restraint seems to be the name of the game, and it’s paying massive dividends on Cavalcade. This restraint carries them into the final stretch of the record, which matches the same sort of quiet insanity of “Slow” and “Chondromalacia Patella.” While listening to these closing tracks, one will always feel as if the track is about to explode into thousands of pieces. People have seen them do it before, and it’s only a matter of time. It eventually does, in the closing moments of “Hogwash and Balderdash,” turn into a sea of roaring feedback and static. In the afterglow of so much tension, the release is immaculate.
So that leaves one question, how will this book close? The answer is, of course; however, black midi wants it to close. “Ascending Forth” opens slow and quiet, making use of the same techniques that drove the center of the record and flares into moments of blind mania with a ferocity that feels both wholly improvised and painstakingly calculated. It is this fierce unpredictability that makes black midi so essential and so captivating. They are not the first band to abandon traditional song structures, but the way in which they choose to abandon them is what makes them an object of fascination. It’s emotionally powerful without being a soap opera and technically excellent without becoming self-aggrandizing. It’s everything people could possibly want.
Within the grooves of Cavalcade, black midi shows that they’ve unlocked something special, something that lurked beneath the craggy surface of Schlagenheim. That something turned out to be restraint and having found it, black midi have empowered themselves to become more chaotic and more cohesive with every passing second. People are watching a rocket ascend skyward; it’s anyone’s guess as to where it might land.