Black Midi – ‘Hellfire’ review: intense first-person narratives fuel a genre-gnarling thrill ride

Building on the dynamic intensity of 2021's ‘Cavalcade’, the UK trio's third album further expands their intrepid musical universe

Wasting little time in following up last year’s pigeonhole-defying ‘Cavalcade’, London’s Black Midi are back with a similarly idea-stuffed third album just 14 months later. Taking half that time to write and record, ‘Hellfire’’s 10 tracks present the most compelling evidence yet that the experimental three-piece outfit are well on course to being recognised as one of the most inventive acts of their generation.

Veering from zippy jazz, murky post-punk and opiated, dreamy psychedelia, ‘Hellfire’’s ever-shifting musical foundations are as unstable as frontman Geordie Greep’s frantic monologues. These fragmented first-person tales find Black Midi’s 22-year old vocalist/guitarist inhabiting the headspace of an inebriated, traumatised soldier on shore leave (‘Welcome To Hell’), an unhinged murderer stalking out his prey (‘Dangerous Liaisons’) and the question-spewing, sarcophagus-dwelling Freddie Frost on closer ‘27 Questions’. With his vocal character hard-swinging from that of a finger-snapping lounge act to a deranged, near-hysterical preacher in the vein of David Byrne, Greep has evolved into a captivating central figure.

Juxtaposing Greep’s often manic lyrical eruptions are the cuts helmed by co-vocalist and bassist Cameron Picton – namely the gorgeous ‘Still’ and the tense ‘Eat Men Eat’ – which serve as islands of often sweet serenity. Presaged by the title track’s overture of disordered chaos, ‘Sugar/Tzu’ is an able distillation of the band’s strengths. Leaping from soothing, sax-coated placidity to a frenetic riff-driven death dive, Greep leads us into a quasi-futuristic boxing tournament which leads to casual murder.

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Unnerving tone established, lead single ‘Welcome To Hell’ depicts a PTSD-suffering ex-soldier’s overwhelmed senses as he wanders the gaudy streets of “Night-Time Town”. Framed by a deluge of wonky, unkempt riffs and a salvo of troubled beats, the action-packed behemoth is perhaps ‘Hellfire’’s most engrossing listen.

A band as stylistically limber as Black Midi would struggle without a safe pair of hands behind the kit, and drummer Morgan Simpson is undoubtedly one of the band’s central weapons. Once the 16-year-old recipient of the Young Drummer of the Year award back in 2014, Simpson’s effortless beat-driving prowess is the motor that enables the band to easily glide between styles. The breakneck ‘The Race Is About To Begin’ is a delicious example: Simpson lets loose here with some furious math-rock pummelling, before tightening up into a stately marching band build.

Call it avant-garde if you will (and it’s a certainty that some will find the album’s frequent gear-shifts too much to bear), but listening to ‘Hellfire’ delivers more musical thrills and about-turns per minute than few other records we’ve heard this year. Sounding more assured of their creative agility than ever before, ‘Hellfire’ is the work of a very special group of alchemists.

Details

Black Midi - 'Hellfire' artwork

  • Release date: July 15
  • Record label: Rough Trade Records
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