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.
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.
- Release date: July 15
- Record label: Rough Trade Records