Black Midi – Hellfire

Unique London outfit wrestle with chaos on their explosive third album and achieve precise mayhem

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For three young men in their early twenties, Black Midi have already covered a lot of musical ground. Their 2019 debut, Schlagenheim, embraced a twisted mutation of math-rock, jazz and post-punk, recalling Battles at their most discordant or a mutilated King Crimson. 2021’s Cavalcade was a more all-encompassing tonal affair; alongside the frenzied assaults was a softer, more melodic and often poignant side that showed they could veer into avant-folk territory as easily as they could pulverising noise-rock. They continue on this unpredictable route here, on their third album, seemingly on a crusade to sound like all genres yet also none.

On the opening “Hellfire” they combine an almost rap-esque spitfire delivery of words – “a headache, a sore limb, an itchy gash, a mirage, a tumour, a scar” – over the top of a composition that encompasses theatrical piano, military drums, stirring strings and wailing saxophone. It is a wild start to an album made by a band who have chosen to wholeheartedly embrace chaos. However, they also possess such clear talent as musicians, delivering each note with sharp clarity and exactness, that they manage to create a dichotomous form of precise mayhem.

Marta Salogni, who previously worked on Cavalcade’s opener “John L”, produces here, and does a deft yet dynamic job of bringing the band to life. The record is often intensely busy – with tracks like “Sugar/Tzu” veering from tender and gentle restraint to volatile and discordant bursts of squealing guitar and drums – yet it never sounds cluttered or messy. She’s able to extract, and highlight, the disorder while also emphasising space, allowing the record to swing from breakdown to explosion and back again with grace.

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Some moments of the record are so overblown, bombastic, theatrical, confounding and nonsensical – take the brilliant “The Race is About To Begin”, with characters that include Mrs Gonorrhoea, and which sounds like someone has accidentally played three different songs at once – that it can feel like the band are taking the piss. And in many senses, they are; ideas, lyrics and musical directions that many groups may toss off for fun in the studio but quickly discard as being too absurd are seen through to the bitter end here. The band themselves have said as much: “Black Midi don’t expect, or want, you to take themselves or their music too seriously. Black Midi’s music can be exuberant, cathartic, theatrical, comic, absurdist, over-abundant, intense, cinematic, brutal.”

Black Midi’s creative restlessness is reflected in the vast shifts that take place within the album. At times it ricochets around so such – from the metal-esque riffage of “Welcome To Hell” to the acoustic skip of “Still” – that it feels whiplash-inducing. Similarly, the lyrics and stories on the album lean more towards vignettes than they do a neatly packaged conceptual whole, even if hell in various forms is something of a recurring theme.

Often what we have are character monologues, with singer Geordie Greep stating “almost everyone depicted is a kind of scumbag”; the narrative of the album glides from boxing-match drama to a fictional radio host introducing the band to confessions of a grisly murder. It’s a little like channel-hopping through a TV station programmed by someone who has amalgamated the strangest corners of the world into one place. There’s no performative politics here, no social commentary, no earnest personal overspill, just a series of odd stories that capture what a genuinely eccentric band, and lyricist Greep, are. His vocal delivery matches this wild ride too, from idiosyncratic spoken word, to frenzied screams, to a genuinely tender, soft and beautiful delivery that even veers towards a croon from time to time, as on the sweeping “The Defence”.

Ultimately, the unique thing about Black Midi is that despite the shock of their sound – an all-things-at-once post-genre party – Hellfire manages to retain a strange and hypnotic cohesion. They’ve managed to make tonal inconsistencies feel like an actual consistency, rather than being a jarring and detracting experience. They’ve wrangled chaos into submission, and currently sound like no other band out there.

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