If it didn’t register in 2019 with the release of their debut, Schlagenheim, then by now it should be clear as a lark’s tongue in aspic: black midi are a prog band. The group’s talents always skewed too heavily toward virtuosity for noise rock, their overtures too grand for post-punk—whatever resemblance they once bore to the talk-sing superstars of the British isles has been abandoned in favor of rock operas and epic sagas. Last year’s Cavalcade showcased the depth and breadth of their ability to craft intricate narratives and complex musical motifs within melodic rock music, occasionally with pop surprises and moments of searing, white-hot intensity. All of which remain in place on the band’s third album Hellfire, arriving just one year later, but the group instead sews up the in-between spaces, making their most knotty creation to date their most dizzyingly invigorating as well.
The band describes Hellfire as an action-film counterpart to Cavalcade‘s drama, and there’s no ambiguity about action being the driving force behind the album: The stern military march of the title opener and Geordie Greep’s rapid-fire narration seem to drop the listener in the middle of its titular inferno, Weill-ian operatics and Crimsonian time signatures scoring a brief but chaotic overture into “Sugar/Tzu”‘s bloodthirsty opening declaration: “Let’s see some thunder!” And then it starts to get really interesting.
An agitated and airtight set of songs at a lean 38 minutes, Hellfire is testament to black midi’s economy, the band packing more ideas into a little over half an hour than most bands might explore during whole-ass careers. They come fast and with a relentless ferocity, the Croydon trio’s instrumental abilities never sounding anything less than superhuman, even in their most sedate moments or when the storylines threaded into each rock opera in miniature—like the boxer who draws a pistol in a title bout (“Sugar/Tzu”) or the evil Captain who harvests human stomach acid to make some kind of disgusting wine (“Eat Men Eat”)—are almost outlandish enough to overshadow the band’s musical feats. Yet black midi’s musical instincts are always too musically bonkers to let such a thing happen, whether they’re delivering a litany of the horrors of war in the underworld funk of “Welcome to Hell,” stomping out a blistering flamenco in “Eat Men Eat” or descending into the maximalist mayhem of “The Race Is About to Begin.”
If black midi’s instincts continue to pull them toward anxiety-ridden sensory overload, Hellfire shows that, as with Newton’s Third Law, they’re just as often drawn toward an equal and opposite reaction. And for each of the band’s forays into infernal majesty, there’s a moment that stands as one of black midi’s prettiest. A surprising country influence shows up in “Still,” with its finger-picked riffs and generous use of slide, while the gorgeously sinister clean guitar tone of “Dangerous Liaisons” provides a doorway to rain-streaked noir city streets and a twisted sort of underworld romance. And with the bright touches of horn section on “The Defence,” black midi even take a stab at the cinematic, their penchant for grandeur brushed up with a splash of glamour that suits their everything-at-once approach unexpectedly well.
The lingering impression of Hellfire is likely to be that which its very title denotes: depravity, debauchery, greed, gluttony and filth. It’s a bundle of sometimes inextricable contradictions, a glorious an intricately crafted cacophony, a document of remarkable beauty that often requires the chaos and dissonance to ultimately reveal itself. It feels, even more than its predecessor, like the most challenging black midi album yet. That’s achievement enough to be a feather in the band’s cap, though that comes with a higher bar for approachability as well. Hellfire asks a certain commitment in the listener, a certain level of attention and trust in black midi’s wildest ideas and least navigable gauntlets. The good news is just how exciting and endlessly entertaining every last one of black midi’s seemingly endless arsenal of ideas is on Hellfire—the sheer holy shit! of it all is boundless and repeatedly rewarding. Their aim might be to overwhelm, but just as often, they dazzle.
Label: Rough Trade
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.