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The age of streaming has been a great time to give listeners exactly what they want. But when it comes to music, you might not want to first, the era of demand hardly seems ideal. Songs that are difficult, inaccessible or abrasive are so easy to avoid or click that the incentive to be challenging, innovative, and totally original is virtually non-existent. With limitless musical comfort food at your fingertips, who wants to feast on barbed wire salad?
I say this as a preface to what I mean as a heartfelt compliment: Black Midi is the rare rock band with a meaningful profile that isn’t afraid to irritate people.
When they hit the indie spotlight with their 2019 debut Schlagenheim –the title is a made-up word that immediately puts cautious listeners on the blast – this British band is distinguished by a thorny, cranky sound that draws its inspiration from a collection of music-geek influences, all deliberately tough: the era of the Miles Davis merger, Discipline-King Crimson era, the Minutemen to their most angry and less melodic classical composers, and avant-garde like Bartok and Stravinsky. The frontman of the group, Geordie Greep – if Black Midi did not already exist, Thomas Pynchon should have invented them – sang in an indescribable and inhuman howl. (Here’s my attempt to describe him anyway: he looks like a character from a Fassbinder movie if that movie was populated by talking dolphins.)
Drawn from hours of improvisation, Schlagenheim thrilling with captivating instrumental intensity. But he wasn’t in charge of what you might call “bangers”. If Black Midi’s pop appeal was minimal before, it has completely evaporated on the new one. Cavalcade, which finds them doubling down on anything that might have seemed off-putting about the debut.
Take the opening track “John L.”, which was bravely (and hilarious) selected as the first single. When the song dropped in March, some listeners were quick to liken it to the Primus funk-prog goofball act, which in 2021, indie-rock talk (to say the least) isn’t generally considered a good thing. . (Those of us who once housed copies of Sail the seas of cheese and Pork soda inside a Case Logic CD case might argue otherwise, but maybe not in public and certainly not sober.) But the point is that only the first section of “John L.”, in which Black Noon beats a furiously deranged punk-klezmer riff that sounds like a Tim and Eric gone a bit wrong, remotely resembling Primus. From there, Black Midi slips into a sorry ambient interlude before returning to a complex post-rock climax in which a mathematical lick interprets loops over an obnoxiously sophisticated rhythm section.
A song in Cavalcade and it’s already exhausting. But Black Midi is just getting started on a record that references German cabaret, free jazz, Gilbert and Sullivan, Soft Machine, and (I doubt they’ll admit it but I swear it’s in there ) at least two or three Mars Volta albums. If they announced that their main influence on this record was the sound of your neighbor’s car alarm going off at 3 a.m., I wouldn’t be surprised.
But, again, I mean this as a compliment. I don’t just like this album, I admire it. This album goes against the grain of a contemporary musical culture which values above all the sugar rush of instantly sympathetic pop music. (And I’m not talking about a small, weak butter knife here; it’s a sonic machete.) I don’t know if Cavalcade is going to help or hurt Black Midi’s career, but I appreciate how they don’t seem to care anyway.
The guys at Black Midi – Greep, bassist Cameron Picton and mighty drummer Morgan Simpson – are all in their early twenties, but they’re already veterans of an English rock scene that includes Dry Cleaning, Squid, Shame and Black Country. , New Route. These groups are generally classified as post-punk, and they often have a cultural commentary bent to their lyrics, in which unmoved singers dispassionately dissect the banalities of life under late capitalism against sinewy, muscular guitar riffs.
I like some of these groups more than others. Best of the lot is dry cleaning, which debuts in 2021 New long leg is one of the first critics’ favorites mainly due to singer Florence Shaw’s overwhelming anti-charisma and her plentiful supply of funny lyrical entries. I also enjoy moments about Squid’s patchy debut earlier this year, Light green field, which is generally more funk and more dancing than the rest of this area.
But even the strongest of those nü-post-punk acts feel slightly warmed up, like the latest iteration of a revival that has already been revived several times over the past 40 years. At this point, I have to ask: will bands like The Fall ever cease to be a fundamental influence for the new generation of cool young indie? A similar question could be asked of music critics, who still regard post-punk as a “progressive” (and therefore commendable) sound in independent music.
I’m exempting Black Midi from this conversation because despite their association with this scene, they don’t really sound like these other bands or post-punk in general. On the one hand, Black Midi consciously avoids the rigorous nü-post-punk themes of economic and spiritual exhaustion. Cavalcade exists on the opposite end of the spectrum of the working naturalism of a band like Dry Cleaning – the songs are very theatrical and centered on larger-than-life characters both real (like the eponymous protagonist of ‘Marlene Dietrich’) and imaginary. It’s a record that has almost nothing to do with the modern world, which is of course the point. Black Midi is its own world.
In terms of music, Cavalcade finds that Black Midi goes completely to prog. The meat of the album progresses like a sequel, with a surly and uncompromising track sliding more or less gracefully into the next one. The group said that Cavalcade was more composed and less dependent on improvisation than Schlagenheim, and that seems to have referred to the structuring of each constituent piece into a coherent album. The wavering groove of “Chrondromalacia Patella” pulls stocky, syncopated tentacles on the quieter and prettier “Slow”, highlighted by a post-bop sax solo. And it blends into the ambient and spatial Americana of “Diamond Stuff”, which logically proceeds to the unleashed “Dethroned”, the Black Midi closest to the aggressive guitar explosions of the first record.
This path leads to the best song on Cavalcade, the nearest nine minutes ‘Ascending Forth,’ in which Greep tweeted a bizarre story about an insane and creatively stuck composer on a magnificent Selling England by the Pound more stupidly convoluted guitars and rhythms. Until then, if you’ve indulged in Black Midi, you might find that what was initially foreign or boring now seems … a little calming, actually. And then you will know that you have been sucked into this strange and fascinating new world.
Cavalcade released on Friday via Rough Trade. You understand here.