Hellfire is Black Midi’s second studio album.
Formed in London in 2017, Black Midi released their second studio album Cavalcade in 2021 and just 14 months later the band delighted their followers with a new album Hellfire.
And why not, because you should make hay while the sun shines. In Black Midi’s case, the sun is really shining hot as hell as can for a band playing uncompromising progressive rock in the 2020s. Cavalcade was critically acclaimed and celebrated on numerous ”best albums of the year” lists. The challenging album even sold quite well, peaking at number 16 on the US album charts.
I was a little worried that these musicians in their early twenties would be able to hold on to their vision when the gates of success are wide open or whether they would end up softening their expression with the successor to Cavalcade. Hellfire proves my concerns wrong as it is an even more furious album than its predecessor.
The band’s trendiest hipster fans may not want to admit it, but Black Midi has been a dyed-in-the-wool prog band from the start, and that remains the case on their third album. Black Midi don’t make the mistake of tiredly repeating 70s prog clichés. The band’s music has all the obvious hallmarks of prog, such as skilful and technical playing with shifting tempos and irregular rhythms, but at the same time it has an insanely intense energy more akin to hardcore punk.
On the other hand, amidst the furious noise, 22-year-old vocalist/guitarist Geordie Greep may well be singing with a romantic beauty reminiscent of a twisted 1940s croonsoner. Greep has evolved tremendously as a vocalist in a year and no longer mumbles as he too often did with Cavalcade. Greep’s strange vocals are like a mix of Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, David Byrne and Mike Patton and are one of the crucial elements why Black Midi sounds so original.
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Prog and punk are the two main pillars of Black Midi, and the third one is jazz, from which the band draws not only spontaneity in song structures but also influences for their instrumentation. In the same way as Cavalcade, Hellfire also features a huge number of instruments that are mostly not part of the palette of rock bands or even prog bands. There is accordion, xylophone, cello, trombone, a collection of different saxophones, mandolin and much more. Black Midi trio Geordie Greep, Cameron Picton and Morgan Simpson play a wide range of instruments themselves, but also include a large number of guest musicians. And 25 belchers. Yes, 25 fans recruited via Instagram will get credit for burping to the song ”Eat Man Eat”. The burping is new and also for the first time, a small string orchestra will be heard on a few tracks. The burping and the orchestra is just one example of how low and high culture collide on Hellfire.
If possible, Black Midi’s music is even more fierce and crazy on Hellfire than before. Cavalcade still had a few King Crimson moments, but this time the band seems to be drawing more and more on the direction of avant-prog eclectic Fred Frith (his early 80’s solo albums and the raucous bands Massacre and Skeleton Crew come to mind). I have no idea if the Black Midi trio have ever even heard of Frith, but like for that legend, music seems to be a boundless joy for the Black Midi guys and all different genres and trends are possible sources of inspiration. On the other hand, Scott Walker’s late experimental output also seems to be a more obvious source of inspiration than before; there’s a similar macabre black humour in the album’s lyrics. Greep’s and Picton’s lyrics are not quite as cryptic as Walker’s, though, despite their strangeness, but tend to have a clearer narrative. Oh, and… the use of burping as an effect is pure Scott Walker! He would have loved that!
Speaking of narrative; according to Black Midi, Hellfire is a concept album about hell. There are many references to hell in the lyrics, but for the most part it seems to tell colourful stories about unpleasant and malevolent people who would surely end up in hell if such a place really existed. Black Midi doesn’t seem to take hell too seriously, as they have said that the concept was inspired by a Simpsons Halloween special episode where Homer Simpson gets thrown into the hell.
Greep has described the album as an action movie in musical form. The analogy is not exactly off the cuff but if Hellfire is an action movie, it is one that would never actually be made in Hollywood; a manic spectacle shot on a huge budget that would be a colourfully psychedelic and hallucinatory experience. Perhaps Gaspar Noé and $200 million could be the right combination to produce the cinematic equivalent of Hellfire. The album’s conceptualism is also supported musically by the fact that its ten tracks are closely interlinked so that the next one usually starts from the previous one without a break in between.
The album’s central three-straight is three consecutive tracks in the first half of the album. The songs ”Sugar/Tzu”, ”Eat Man Eat” and ”Welcome To Hell” seem to form a kind of song sequence within a song sequence. ”Sugar/Tzu”, which begins with a carnivalesque mess, starts off calmly, but soon explodes into a frenetic storm with Greep foaming like a mad circus ringmaster. Calm sections alternate with super-fast and super-crazy guitar riffs, with the horn section picking up the pace at times. The lyrics of the song are about a ”freak” less than a metre tall who kills and shoots another boxer in a boxing match to gain fame.
I ran through legs to the front of the crowd
Sun Sugar came over in-between rounds
Sun Sugar came over and shook my fuckin’ hand
He turned away, and I might’ve shot him in the back
As Sun Tzu raised his arms
Crowned champ while Sugar bled on
No doctor on the scene – the audience won
”Eat Man Eat” continues directly after ”Sugar Tzu” without a break, sounding like a mariachi march played by cyborgs. The mood changes rapidly on this track too, though. Drummer Morgan Simpson’s technical, but at the same time wildly loose, playing, especially in the fast parts of the song, is downright intoxicating to listen to. The lyrics of ”Eat Man Eat”, sung by bassist Picton, tell a twisted tale of a homophobic ship captain who tries to poison male couple from his crew.
“You fucking faggots ain’t seen the last of me yet
I’ll have the last laugh, you cunts, soon you’ll see
Each day you wake, and each night you sleep
I’ll be camped in your chests, burning! Burning!”
But we kept running, turned our backs on old Hell
With wine in our hearts, hailed as saviors of new!
The third part of the trilogy, ”Welcome To Hell”, begins with a seductively devious drum beat, followed by electric guitars that are at least as devious attacking in staccato-like here and there. Greep’s vocals jump from a declarative chant to a slightly arrogant croon to a vicious-sounding howling and back again. Towards the end, Simpson puts on a little drum clinic, hitting the game with frantic chops and fill variations. Just when the band’s playing skills are starting to sound irritatingly good, a rough punk section is introduced, but it soon bounces back to prog waters. A really breathtaking three-track set that reflects the style of the album quite well.
Fortunately, Hellfire has its more serene moments also and right after the frenetic trio we hear a nice calm song ”Still” that almost sounds like a country song. On the other hand, Ife Ogunjob’s trumpet sometimes carries the mood south over the border to Mexico. Maybe the mariachi influences again?. The song is sung in a gentler voice than Greep by the band’s bassist Cameron Picton.
As the few snippets of lyrics quoted above suggest, Black Midi don’t seem to take themselves too seriously, but at the same time the music itself is consistently carefully planned and virtuosically executed. Hellfire could be described as serious fun.
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Although the worst days of the loudness war are probably behind us, many new albums (and remasters!) are still being mastered too hot, meaning the dynamics have been flattened to almost nothing. Unfortunately Hellfire also suffers from over-compression and when listening to it you find yourself constantly turning the volume pot down which is always a bad sign. The problem seems to be at its worst on the CD version as even the Apple Music version doesn’t sound as bad to me. It may be that Hellfire might be an album worth getting on vinyl. If you can get past the excessive compression, the Marta Salogni-produced album does offer otherwise quite high-quality sounds and the mixing, which is full of details and is well-balanced mixing wise.
Hellfire lasts only 39 minutes which is just the right length for such a dense and furious album. Black Midi’s third album is an alternately exhilarating and infuriating experience. Sometimes even at the same time. It may be too early to tell, and I might declare my love for Hellfire in six months’ time, but at the moment I feel it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. All the mad ranting the album serves up is entertaining and impressive to listen to, but in between it could do with a little more beauty and moments of serenity that Cavalcade managed to dose more effectively into all the grind.
I started this article by rejoicing that the first glimmer of success has not dampened Black Midi, and it is perhaps a little contradictory that in the future I hope the band will take a slightly calmer approach. But on the other hand, isn’t it possible to loosen the throttle a little without having to jump headlong into the ”Phil Collins years” (David Bowie’s term!). Greep, Picton and Simpson are young guys who clearly have the will to show how clever and skilful they are, but I believe that with a bit of maturity the trio can rise to the ranks of the true masters, bringing a touch more real feeling and soulfulness to their music.
Best songs: ”Sugar Tzu”, ”Eat Men Eat”, ”Welcome To Hell”, ”Still”, ”27 Questions”
Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI
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- ”Hellfire” 1:24
- ”Sugar/Tzu” 3:50
- ”Eat Men Eat” 3:08
- ”Welcome to Hell” 4:09
- ”Still” 5:46
- ”Half Time” 0:26
- ”The Race Is About to Begin” 7:15
- ”Dangerous Liaisons” 4:14
- ”The Defence” 2:59
- ”27 Questions” 5:43