ALBUM REVIEW: black midi, Hellfire
On Hellfire, black midi gives away a bit of the mystery and intrigue that has made their music so deliriously enjoyable in favor of a more cohesive narrative structure. While longtime fans may be a little disappointed to hear a severe lack of nonsense and a generally more organized lyrical pointedness, the band doubles down on pretty much everything else that makes them such an idiosyncratic crew in the oversaturated post-punk field. While standout groups like Squid and Black Country, New Road put heavy focus on theatrical, overblown instrumental elements with pop culture and literary references weaved throughout the lyrics, black midi has always been a cut above in just how much they do with so little. When I saw them at Pitchfork Festival last summer, there were four instruments on stage: drums, guitar, bass, saxophone. No harps, no strings, no modulated synth XR2-5800 digital fucksplosion, just some boys and their simple gear. The show blew my mind. It was jazzy in genre, but more importantly the soloist mentality translated to any type of music they played. Whether it was slow balladry or heavy metal debauchery, the chemistry between the four members was explosive.
black midi purists (who’s Venn Diagram with math rock Redditors is a circle) swear by their debut Schlagenheim as their definitive statement. In my opinion, while the sound of that particular record was deeply refreshing, their blend of sounds has only gotten stronger from record to record. The brilliant Cavalcade leaned more into the Primus comparisons with wacky panic-inducing moshs like “John L” and their absolute best song “Chondromalacia Patella”. My only real gripe with that record was how the slower cuts were incorporated, as momentum stoppers rather than smooth transitioning moments. Hellfire, to me, is their best offering in that it is a more finely distilled beast in nearly every way. Going back to my original point from the beginning of the review, rather than swim too deep into the depth of the unknown, lead singer Gordie Greep tells a series of succinct tales. Like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, each little vignette tells the story of a protagonist caught up, one way or another, in a world of sin. Each person has a brush with Hell, whether they are directly pulled into it, are doomed there or nearly escape it is up to Gordie and the gang.
The short title track that signals the curtains is an accurate laundry list of the negativity that plagues the human condition, “There’s always something” it starts, “A headache, a sore limb, an itchy gash, a mirage, a tumor, a scare / And when one is fixed another breaks, when some destroyed, the more await / When it is time, no-one comes, when you have time, it is up”. The world that we live in is full of problems that are “solved” with band-aid solutions that often make the issue worse. There is not enough time in the day to patch up all the problems, and this leads to a ceaseless flow of sewage that we all have to bathe in, or drown in. The devil is omnipresent with temptation and destruction, coming first in the form of a murderous clout grab on “Sugar/Tzu”. The transition from the opener to this one is seamless, a practice that the band incorporates through the record. After a faux Bruce Buffer intro, the band pump-fakes us with dreamy, sax-led balldary before bursting immediately into a wordy, speedy screed that emulates a boxing match. The narrator, a random man in the crowd, shake’s the hand of Sugar Tzu, the winner, before shooting him in the back. It speaks to parasocial relationships and deranged fame in our current era, where some people will do a mass shooting or kill their favorite social media star for a morsel of notoriety. The following “Eat Men Eat” is a deeply strange tale of two men who are almost tricked into death by a mine baron’s gluttonous meal. There is always a price to pay on Hellfire, and the band captures all the peaks and valleys of these experiences like surrealist painters. The insane cover of the record, a continuation of the art style from Cavalcade, makes even more sense here. It’s headache-inducing, brillant, colorful modern art.
Satan takes the shape of a goading commanding officer on “Welcome To Hell”, screaming things like “to kill for your country is what wins a war” and “our bullets were made for the impotent idiots that God forgot” at a private named Tristan before discharging him. Structurally, the track plays like a faster, more fiery version of a Swans track, repeating riffs and grooves over and over again while turning up the heat and incompressibility at the same time. As we advance into the second half of the record, we get to experience some slower tracks. I really think that this separation is key to the album’s success, allowing the group to actually focus on the structure at play. While “Diamond Stuff” or “Marlene Dietrich” from their last effort were mere cool down reactions to preceding songs, the second half of Hellfire feels more deeply fleshed out. Take for instance, “The Defence”, where the main character is a brothel owner who is doing a great service by providing safety and shelter for prostitutes. It is able to use slower jazz-fusion to back really profound call outs of religious hypocrisy, “My girls all destined for Hell / Or so says our priest / But find me a Christian who spends as much time on their knees / Closer to God, they honor his glory in the best way”. God bless the OnlyFans girls. “Dangerous Liaisons” tells the tale of a farm hand who is duped into murder for hire, only to get no compensation for his act other than extreme guilt. It starts very calmly with sweeping piano and sax sections, but begins to devolve and increase in volume as the Devil digs his claws into the man’s psyche.
So all in all, the group allows the fire to burn on the more overtly volatile tracks, and allows the sin to seep in through the cracks on the steadier ones. It goes from a large, hot flame, to ashes, to rebirth, to innocence, to corruption of purity, to a larger, hotter flame, repeat. With all that considered, I don’t know where to place the campy, gonzo journalist deconstruction of “The Race Is About To Begin” but I fucking love it. Tristian, the dishonorably discharged soldier from the first half of the album, comes back as a degenerate gambler. On one of the most impressive vocal spewings I’ve ever heard on an album, Gordie Greep lays down this gigantic, 30-year spanning verse that is part-documentary, part-rant, part-commentary, all genius. Like Soul Glo did so brilliantly earlier this year on Diaspora Problems, Greep is able to capture the brain rot of modern living with his scattered mix of prophetic truths and utter fucking hogwash. The closer “27 Questions” ties the project off as neatly as it can, putting all the sinners under one roof to watch an old entertainer say his last words. “In Heaven, do the morals of Earth still stand?”, “Do nuns fornicate?” and “Will the sun burn out?” he asks the intrigued crowd before blowing up to the size of a hot air balloon and exploding.
Hellfire is black midi’s most important statement to date, an argument for the relevance of modern rock music as the torch-bearer for the old guard. While the bloated corpses of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruce Springsteen continue to pump out some of the most unimaginative rehashes of “classic rock” (derogatory), bands like this and Yves Tumor are here to take the torches they were handed and burn it all down in favor of an exciting new landscape. While maybe a little too awkwardly wordy and over-explained in parts, black midi’s third effort solidifies their place as an essential band of the 2020s. With a little more cryptism, the removal of unnecessary tracks like “Still” and a slight stylistic switch up for LP4, I could easily see them dropping an A+. But for now, I’m going to firmly say that they deserve a rare A- from AntiArt.