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The streaming era has been great for giving listeners exactly what they want. But when it comes to music you might not want at first, the on-demand age hardly seems ideal. Songs that are difficult, inaccessible, or abrasive are so easy to avoid or click away from that the incentive to be challenging, innovative, and unapologetically original is practically nonexistent. At a time when boundless musical comfort food is at our fingertips, who wants to feast on barbed-wire salad?
I say this as a preface to what I mean as a sincere compliment: Black Midi is the rare rock band with a significant profile that is unafraid of irritating people.
When they stepped into the indie spotlight with their 2019 debut Schlagenheim —the title is a made-up word that immediately puts cautious listeners on blast — this British band set themselves apart with a thorny, elbows-out sound that drew from a compendium of music-geek influences, all of them willfully arduous: fusion-era Miles Davis, Discipline-era King Crimson, the Minutemen at their angriest and least melodic, and avant-garde classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky. The band’s singer, Geordie Greep — if Black Midi didn’t already exist, Thomas Pynchon would’ve had to invent them — sang in an indescribable, inhuman yelp. (Here’s my attempt to describe it anyway: He sounds like a character in a Fassbinder film if that film happened to be populated with talking dolphins.)
Drawn from hours of improvisations, Schlagenheim throbbed with attention-grabbing instrumental intensity. But it wasn’t loaded with what you might call “bangers.” If Black Midi’s pop appeal was minimal before, however, it has completely evaporated on the new Cavalcade, which finds them doubling down on everything that might have seemed off-putting about the debut.
Take the opening track “John L.,” which was courageously (and hilariously) selected as the first single. When the song dropped in March, some listeners quickly likened it to the goofball funk-prog act Primus, which in 2021 indie-rock discourse (to put it mildly) is not typically considered a good thing. (Those of us who once housed copies of Sailing The Seas Of Cheese and Pork Soda inside a Case Logic CD case might argue otherwise, though perhaps not in public and certainly not sober.) But the fact is that only the first section of “John L.,” in which Black Midi pummels a furiously deranged punk-klezmer riff that sounds like a Tim and Eric bit gone awry, remotely resembles Primus. From there, Black Midi slips into a desolate ambient interlude before charging back to an intricate post-rock climax in which a math-y guitar lick performs curlicues over an obnoxiously sophisticated rhythm section.
One song into Cavalcade and it’s already exhausting. But Black Midi is just getting started on a record that proceeds to reference German cabaret, free jazz, Gilbert and Sullivan, Soft Machine, and (I doubt they would admit this but I swear it’s in there) at least two or three Mars Volta albums. If they announced that their primary influence for this record was the sound of your neighbor’s car alarm going off at 3 a.m., I would not be surprised.
But, again, I mean this as a compliment. I not only like this album, I admire it. This album cuts against the grain of a contemporary music culture that values above all else the sugar rush of instantly likable pop music. (And I’m not talking about some weak little butter knife here; this is a sonic machete.) I have no idea if Cavalcade will help or hurt Black Midi’s career, but I appreciate how they don’t seem to care either way.
The guys in Black Midi — Greep, bassist Cameron Picton, and powerhouse drummer Morgan Simpson — are all in their early 20s, but they’re already veterans of an English rock scene that includes Dry Cleaning, Squid, Shame, and Black Country, New Road. These bands are typically classified as post-punk, and they often have a culture commentary bent to their lyrics, in which deadpan singers dispassionately dissect the banalities of life under late-capitalism against clanging, muscular guitar riffs.
I like some of these bands more than others. The best of the lot is Dry Cleaning, whose 2021 debut New Long Leg is an early critical favorite due mostly to lead singer Florence Shaw’s compelling anti-charisma and deep supply of droll lyrical asides. I also enjoy moments on Squid’s uneven debut from earlier this year, Bright Green Field, which is generally funkier and more danceable than the rest of this field.
But even the strongest of these nü-post-punk acts feel slightly reheated, as the latest iteration of a revival that has already been revived several times in the past 40 years. At this point, I have to ask: Will bands like The Fall ever stop being a foundational influence for the newest generation of cool indie kids? A similar question could be posed to music critics, who still regard post-punk as a “progressive” (and therefore laudable) sound in indie music.
I exempt Black Midi from this conversation because in spite of their association with this scene, they don’t really sound anything like these other bands or post-punk in general. For one thing, Black Midi consciously avoids the de rigueur nü-post-punk themes of economic and spiritual burnout. Cavalcade exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from the workaday naturalism of a band like Dry Cleaning — the songs are highly theatrical about centered on larger-than-life characters both real (like the eponymous protagonist of “Marlene Dietrich”) and imagined. It’s a record that sounds almost nothing like the modern world, which of course is the point. Black Midi is its own world.
In terms of the music, Cavalcade finds Black Midi moving fully into prog. The meat of the album progresses like a suite, with one surly and uncompromising track somehow gliding more or less gracefully into the next. The band has said that Cavalcade was more composed and less reliant on improv than Schlagenheim, and that appears to have carried over to structuring each component piece into a cohesive album. The lurching groove of “Chrondromalacia Patella” shoots chunky, syncopated tentacles at the quieter and prettier “Slow,” which is spotlighted by a post-bop sax solo. And that blends into the spacey, ambient Americana of “Diamond Stuff,” which proceeds logically to the raging “Dethroned,” the closest Black Midi get to the aggressive guitar explosions of the first record.
This path leads to the best song on Cavalcade, the nine-minute closer “Ascending Forth,” in which Greep warbles a weird tale about an alienated and creatively blocked composer over gorgeous Selling England By The Pound guitars and more stupidly convoluted rhythms. By then, if you’ve given yourself over to Black Midi, you might find that what was initially alien or annoying now seems … kind of soothing actually. And then you’ll know you’ve been sucked into this strange, fascinating new world.
Cavalcade is out Friday via Rough Trade. Get it here.