By David A Gutierrez
London’s black midi seemed to almost come out of nowhere when they appeared on KEXP to play a rather brief but powerful set of (mostly) untitled, cerebral punk tunes at the start of 2019. Not long after, the quartet — composed of vocalist/guitarist Geordie Greep, vocalist/guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, vocalist/bassist Cameron Picton, and powerhouse drummer Morgan Simpson — released their full-length debut, Schlagenheim, on the legendary Rough Trade Records, home to the likes of The Smiths, The Strokes, and Parquet Courts.
Teased in the looping chaos of lead single “bmbmbm,” Schlagenheim demanded attention, with a collection of unrepentantly psychotic music that was simultaneously able to be quietly reigned in at the drop of a hat, and vocals equally sliding between boisterous and whispered deliveries. It was, and still is, a strong and unique debut that stood far apart from many of their contemporaries, drawing more from Pere Ubu and This Heat than Joy Division, and with jagged hints of jazz. For their follow-up — recorded without the participation of Kwasniewski-Kelvin, who has recently taken a hiatus to focus on his mental health — the band could’ve simplified their sound, skewed it more, or just kept it the same, but with Cavalcade, they instead made it majestic.
Opener “John L” wastes no time in entering its busily cyclical melody, with Greep sternly reciting the story of the titular John. Throughout the record (as with this track), Greep seems to tell stories, whereas in Schlagenheim, his lyricism seemed scattered, creating more stream-of-consciousness styled imagery. What’s also new is the addition of strings and piano, which give black midi’s chaotic sonics a grand quality, and in this track, create an added tension as the violin speedily parrots the guitar. Such a quality is driven further home as “John L” seamlessly transitions into the jazzy “Marlene Dietrich,” which channels a style that is very fitting for a track about the legendary cabaret singer. The song is thoroughly pretty, with Greep providing a surprisingly graceful vocal in stark juxtaposition to the quirky sprechgesang that was a constant in the previous record. The beauty of the track makes it shockingly unlike anything black midi has done before, and the result is mesmerizing.
Succeeding track “Chondromalacia Patella” bounces effortlessly between the thunderous and tender styles evident on the previous two tracks, and the amount of control present in the musicians’ playing, no matter how chaotic, is positively incredible. “Slow” is another sign of a band with total mastery of dynamics, with Picton’s vocals crooned and whispered while horns and piano provide a near-cinematic quality to this whirlwind of a song that seems to race against itself, propelled by Simpson’s stellar drumming.
“Diamond Stuff” takes a step back from the busier arrangements on the record, instead centered around a lightly picked lute while a similarly light instrumental flourishes, before it heads into a rather dreamy ending stretch. Like with “Marlene Dietrich,” it’s awe-inspiring to see the band absolutely nail such a majestic quality in their music, alongside their more psychotic sonic impulses. Later, saxophone cues in “Dethroned,” which feed more into this initial impulse, progressively build into a wonderfully cacophonous wall of sound.
Next, “Hogwash and Balderdash,” the album’s shortest song at two and a half minutes, is a hoedown from hell, exhilarating and obscenely fun to hear, with the band creating a mini-epic with a sonic palette that runs a mile. After such a short song is the record’s final track, “Ascending Forth,” which runs nearly 10 minutes. Greep’s smoothly strong vocal, accompanied by finger-picked acoustic guitar, starts off the piece, before organ, Picton’s bass, and Simpson’s surgically precise drumming start to intensify the track. Soon enough, strings, horns, and flutes take their place on the chorus line, and you realize the song is one grand, theatrical curtain call, creating an absolutely intense yet melodic end to such a momentous record.
If Schlagenheim was the exciting sound of art punks shaking a leg, exercising, and fucking around, Cavalcade is the sound of said art punks getting serious and creating an absolutely phenomenal piece of art, meant to be performed in a theatre. After experiencing the theatrical, hardcore jazz of Cavalcade, you either get chills, choked up, or both. If you had a bouquet, you’d throw it.
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