Since their formation at Croydon’s prestigious BRIT School in 2017, black midi have gone from playing Brixton’s tiny Windmill pub to selling out expansive concert halls, being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and cracking the UK Top 50 with their debut album, ‘Schlagenheim’. These are impressive feats in themselves, but they are all the more so (as well as for some, possibly slightly jealousy-inducing) when you take into account the fact that the South London math rockers are all still in their early 20s. ‘Schlagenheim’ set a very high standard for its follow-up to meet, with the additional complication that the band, from whom founding lead guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin took a hiatus for mental health reasons immediately prior to the start of recording, had to record half of their individual parts for it at home, separately, as a trio for the first time whilst a pandemic cut a swathe through the world outside. It is, therefore, a considerable feat of talent, artistry, and sheer bloody hard work that the band have managed to record a second album whose songwriting and musicianship improves upon that of its predecessor in almost every conceivable way.
‘Cavalcade’ opens in fast and furious fashion with the refreshingly immediate-sounding ‘John L’, the punchiest, fastest song black midi have recorded yet. ‘Marlene Dietrich’ then slows things down with a move into bossa nova territory and ‘Chrondomalacia Patella’ is an excellent post-punk song with innovative piano flourishes from Seth Evans. But the real highlight of side one is closing track ‘Slow’, which blends borderline melodramatic-sounding flourishes from a string section with frontman Geordie Greep’s freeform, almost jazzy guitar and the ultra-precise, Slint-inspired playing of bassist Cameron Picton and drummer Morgan Simpson. This combination of conflicting musical styles doesn’t sound like it would work, but it’s actually surprisingly enjoyable and effective.
Side two is opened by the more contemplative ‘Diamond Stuff’, which according to a press release accompanying the album, was inspired by Isabel Waidner’s recent novel set in a decrepit hotel on a post-EU referendum Isle of Wight, ‘We Are Made of Diamond Stuff’. The song is dominated by Greep’s acoustic guitar and includes a mass of orchestral instrumentation, but the whole ends up feeling less than the sum of its parts and it clearly ends up being the weakest song on ‘Cavalcade’ by some distance. However, this is a minor quibble, because black midi follow it up with the rapid-fire one-two punch of ‘Dethroned’ and ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’. Picton uses some of his fastest ever bass-playing to propel the former song’s frenetic funk rhythm along whilst Greep layers what sound like multiple tracks of noise rock guitar lines over the top. The latter track is short, punchy, and even faster, with the band incorporating acoustic guitars far more skilfully and effectively than they did on ‘Diamond Stuff’. black midi close ‘Cavalcade’ in spectacular fashion with ‘Ascending Forth’, a ten-minute epic that recalls the baroque pop of late 60s artists like Burt Bacharach and Richard Harris and builds up to a deeply satisfying semi-orchestral climax.
‘Schlagenheim’ was an impressive piece of work that achieved an unexpected level of mainstream success for the four young, hungry, and talented men working in a relatively niche area of contemporary music who wrote and recorded it. Somehow, they have refined that record’s rough edges and bolstered their own musical skillsets to deliver an album that manages to be superior on almost every conceivable level. If there’s any justice, ‘Cavalcade’ will propel black midi to IDLES-style levels of success. It is clearly one of the best albums of the year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is released via Rough Trade on May 28th. Pre-order it here.