By Paul Robicheau
If you’re up for a lofty challenge, the experimental British rock outfit Black Midi is more than poised to fill the void.
Dozens of dancers in nude bodysuits with feathery headpieces strut, writhe, bend, and boogie in taut choreography amid the clouds wafting before a one-eyed obelisk deity. It’s a surreal scene of worship, death, and rebirth, a garden of unearthly delight and fright that nods to both Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dr. Seuss in one chaotic swoop.
Such is the wildly weird video to “John L” by Black Midi, the experimental British rock outfit named after a note-dense music subgenre. The busy visuals provide the perfect embodiment of the soundtrack, as dancers gyrate and freeze to each jarring jog in the lead track to the band’s stunning second album, Cavalcade.
Ambition isn’t a problem for Black Midi, which serves a dizzying mashup of King Crimson-esque prog, art song, mathcore, and jazz skronk. After losing a co-founding guitarist who quit to attend to his mental health, the remaining Gen Z trio of singer/guitarist Geordie Greep, bassist/singer Cameron Picton and killer drummer Morgan Simpson add a saxophonist and keyboardist to the mix for this follow-up to 2019’s Mercury Prize-nominated Schlagenheim and expand even further.
“In all the world there’s no escape from this infernal din,” Greep recites in “John L,” which matches the video with lyrics about a king in tatters who spouts eternal words to “children of Bethlehem” while “garbling non-song whips throngs into frenzy.” The song rides an incessant cackle of horns and guitar that sounds like Afrobeat fed through a computer, laced with discordant sprays of piano.
After a Brecht-ian bossa nova about Marlene Dietrich injects an unusual palette cleanser, Black Midi’s back on the attack. Clipped chords and tricky beats drop into start-and-stop blasts that evoke a stomping elephant in “Chondromalacia Patella” (the term for “runner’s knee,” where cartilage breaks down under the kneecap). And that song segues into “Slow,” where Picton’s vocal and bass stand in creeping contrast to Greep’s nimble arpeggios and Simpson’s hyper drum cycles.
Kaleidoscopic dynamics drift into “Diamond Stuff,” a pastoral drip that grows into a dreamy churn that can recall the band Grizzly Bear, colored by bouzoukis, flute, bowed percussion, and a fretless zither. Black Midi’s core trio alone dabbles in so many instruments across Cavalcade that it’s a shame they aren’t always clear in the mix. The group originally intended to record just demos at the aptly named Hellfire Studios near Dublin with producer John “Spud” Murphy. They ended up embracing the feel and execution of these sessions, even if the sound suffers.
Mania briefly returns in “Hogwash and Balderdash,” a cartoonish fable where Greep coos a few character voices amid skittering, lurching arrangements. Then the listener is abruptly left afloat in acoustic fingerpicking as the guitarist croons “Everyone loves ascending fourths,” an inside joke on his shifting chord sequence. That 10-minute closer, playfully titled “Ascending Forth,” builds to an operatic crescendo via references to “arcs of the larks” and “masterpiece schmaltz,” reinforcing the perception that the band can laugh at its own drama.
Some people may argue that Black Midi’s eccentric maelstrom exists for the sake of extremes, odd juxtapositions that seem infinitely more interesting than listenable. (Note: the group has already sold out an Oct. 18 show at the Sinclair.) But if you’re up for a lofty challenge, Black Midi is more than poised to fill the void.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.