Right from conception, listeners held Black Midi as something special, spawning near the center of discourse with their first single “bmbmbm”, a gibbering bit of pummeling noise rock awesomeness which perked the ears of the buggier side of the music listening spectrum. This initial wave of intrigue manifested into the critical acclaim of Schlagenheim, their debut LP, whereby they proved themselves distinct from any other noise brutalist, through their baffling intricacies. Dazzlingly mad math rock riffs abound, mixed with the harsh nose of noise rock, supplemented by punk influences, an either screaming or deadpan vocalist, and the nutty free-jazz wicking drumming from Morgan Simpson, cemented their x-factor. They could’ve succinctly rested into their idiosyncrasies, but on their follow up LP Cavalcade, they let the beast evolve, and also gave it a tie. A histrionic and refined sense of opera was found amongst the rubble. While the band still raged, they also let things soar and simmer more often than expected, allowing for a dichotomy between their fury and tenderness. And now their new album Hellfire shows them refining and tightening the screws on this contrast. That isn’t to say this album is predictable; this is Black Midi, stay on your toes.
On the opening title track the band’s predominate vocalist Geordie Greep massages the depraved desires of the Primus fan by introducing a new arsenal to the band. A rapid-fire delivery, where he tightly spits out the lyrics over a looming heartbeat of strings and a simmer of guitar textures, all while a piano stumbles over the affair. A further lavish flood of strings takes over the track only to meet an atonal and sinister conclusion. This one-minute track Black Midi shows commitment to their maximalism, and their illogical clash of noise and baroque, all the while signaling their evolution, which the further tracks validate. The central riff on “Sugar/ Tzu” is pure bugged out, wriggling, and dazzling math rock bliss. “Eat Men Eat” toys with flamenco textures through hand claps and flamenco guitars but vilifies it to testosterone pumping urgency. The heavier, experimental edge of Black Midi’s jumbled sound is framed at its peak, every riff and melody feels intricate, knotty, and serpentined together, but it all feels tightly so. The lunacy feels content and set. But the most notable difference here is how this aspect is challenged by the band’s softer side.
Their prior album Cavalcade was dynamic in how it met a ravaging frenzy of a track with a cooing, similarly grand but gentle ballad. Hellfire does the same, but the dynamic shock of Cavalcade as a whole is experienced continually throughout the album on each track. Cavalcade’s softer and harder aspects felt blocked within the album, meaning there were often chewy low-key bits of gristle bringing down the experience, but here it’s marbled throughout. The final effect are these songs frenzying in the ear, only to suddenly halt for a briefly organic and scant stint, only to rev up again at a knee-jerk reaction. “Sugar/Tzu” leads with a false sense of emergency with a drum roll, leading to a light, horn embezzled loungy segment, only to kick into high gear with the previously noted math-rock riff. Likewise laced throughout the album is their prior influence of sweeping Tony Bennett type showtunes, but also a more prominent folk edge.
While the call and response dynamic is integrated within the songs, it can still be found between the tracks, and the band still have moments where they stray a song away from the noise antics. “Still” has some noisy guitar smatterings and a drone outro to keep it labelled as avant-garde, but it’s largely a jangly folk track. It still adheres to the bands maximalist logic; there’s roughly 26 different instruments on it, but it still has some toe-tapping moments of jamboree. Cameron Picton takes over vocals and he gives a very straight-faced and wholesome performance, supplemented by some earnest songwriting. The lyrics are at their most impressionistic and whimsical here, and they do still allude to some form of chaos in Black Midi fashion, but it feels more like a song regarding the aftermath of mayhem. In spite of the oddness, it feels its foundation stems from a place of humanity.
I know it’s late, but please stay up, and talk to me
Accept some kind of old defeat”
Lyrically this album is very noteworthy, frankly the literary aspect of this album is very good and carefully done, with a noticeably verbose and scholarly edge seldom seen in experimental rock, especially seeing in how they made their debut with lyrics that felt like they were making fun of lyrics. However here, a very specific idea is being harked upon, depravity. Black Midi were already lightly influenced by archaic show tunes, so they lyrically harken back to this time in their depiction of scumbag characters; the gum chewers, the blackguards, murderers, pimps, and lowlifes. A plethora of personas which would make Tom Waits proud. “Sugar/Tzu” is sung from the perspective of an attention desperate narcissist, who shoots a boxer so he can become tabloid fodder. It’s illuminatingly and acerbically executed, while still holding on to the very dramatic sensibilities they cultivated with Cavalcade.
“Sun Sugar, a simple man, cut from coarse cloth
Sun Tzu, seeking strength from a snakeskin broth”
“Welcome to Hell” is sonically an erratic and militant track, told from the perspective of a commander who breaks down and eventually discharges a man named Tristan Bongo, on the basis of his trauma. There is an interesting notion here regarding sex work and masculinity, where the commander demands that Tristan Bongo have sex for the sake of validating oneself, and not for emotional resonance. It’s worth noting because perhaps the best song on the album, also regards prostitution: “The Defence”. This is the least rock song on the album, It’s instead a largely room-filling baroque number, with a stunning vocal performance from Geordie Greep. Previously he provided the appropriate histrionics in his vocal performance through the performative and bellowing style of a Nick Cave, but here he sounds traditionally great. If this record has a crowd pleaser, it’s this.
The track opens with lyrics which imply the singer is a sort of priest, alluding to “disciples” looking for pathetic men. However, the second verse makes it crassly clear that said the singer actually owns a brothel. Said singer then goes onto defend his business, comparing it to the safety and trust of a bank, then contextualizing sex work as a religious act.
“My girls all destined for Hell
Or so says our priest
But find me a Christian
Who spends as much time on their knees”
It’s witty, clever, personality backed, and crude. Though the soundscape is shockingly lush, lavish, and gluttonous, perhaps it’s played up for the sake of a joke. Such vulgar and grimy subject matter being backed by near comically regal orchestration makes for a pretty funny concept, and perhaps by doing this a light point is being made. Appropriating the music played previously for aristocrats with lyrics littered with the “filth” that the people below “commoners” partake in? Now just one second, I need to pop my monocle back in! By conflating the two extremes It’s highlighting the similarity between the greedy joy of fatty decadence and frowned upon cheap sex.
“27 Questions” is perhaps the album’s synthesis. It sounds dysfunctional, with discordant piano chords amongst clattering percussion, as a narrative is being set of a jaded singer named Freddie frost, who’s putting on one last show. When Freddie takes the stage, he spams out in dance, only to break out into a heart-wrenching show closer. The once ugly pianos now dance in harmony with Geordie Greep’s sweet vocal performance, as the old man proceeds to ask 27 questions, and ponder life and mortality: universal questions. Is there an afterlife? Will life just continue without me? Was my own life worthwhile? Do nuns also have sex?
However, Freddie only gets 21 questions in, and the piano starts getting bashed once again, ending on a surreal and cynical note. It perfects encapsulates the album’s ethos to baffle the listener at any step possible. It attempts to break your neck from the whiplash between the fiery eyed noise and their impassioned, crackly pastiche. A notable critic slammed the album for being pretentious, I suppose incorporating folk influences automatically stamps that critique onto an album, but it could be excused in how they do certainly take up more pretensions in their work. The improvement in writing have allowed them to tackle denser themes, and thus the loose concept of this album allows them to substantiate their work. Perhaps in that respect they lost their sense of goofiness, and that’s where such a critique stemmed from. While they may have put their tongue back in their mouth, they are still mind bogglingly random and funny, they simply don’t take themselves that seriously here.
Furthermore, at the end of the album, I truly can’t imagine any fan of Black Midi fan not rushing to replay the carnage all over again. This is Black Midi at their zenith, they have condensed what made their sound work, and whittled it down into a tight, knotty ball of madness. If all is right in the world, this album will be seen as an experimental rock essential. It would be acceptable for them to never make an album better than this, but seeing their freshly honed edge, truly, the hellions have the world at their fingers. What a show!