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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

‘Hellfire’: Black Midi’s descent into madness

Over the last few years, the British underground rock scene has proven itself to be one the most creative and influential in the indie music sphere, producing bands like Black Country, New Road, Squid and Dry Cleaning, which have all put out some of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 2020s. At the forefront of “Post-Brexit New Wave” is the London-based trio Black Midi, who some claim began the movement with their 2019 debut album, “Schlagenheim,” which combines elements from post-punk, noise and math rock to forge a sound which has directed the generally experimental philosophy of their contemporaries. But while Black Midi has previously proven itself as a pioneer of the current rock sphere, can they still push the envelope and surprise audiences?

At first, their third record, “Hellfire,” sounds very similar to their sophomore album, “Cavalcade,” in which the band eschews their post-punk sound in favor of jazz fusion and progressive rock influences from 1970s artists like King Crimson and Frank Zappa, complex orchestral arrangements, odd time signatures and lengthier run times. But even though Black Midi is a band that wears its influences on its sleeve, they still manage to craft a sound uniquely theirs by mixing the more obvious prog clichés with dizzying math rock-inspired riffs and noisy walls of sound“Hellfire” feels much tighter and more direct that “Cavalcade,” which had a run time of 42 minutes despite only being eight tracks long. It’s obvious from the first few tracks that Black Midi’s skills as composers have improved dramatically, as the songs here are much less meandering but still as intricate as the tracks on their previous record.

Meanwhile, the band’s unusual song structures never fail to keep listeners guessing as to where a piece is heading. “The Race is About to Begin,” for example, begins with an energetic arrangement of odd ascending guitar lines and an explosive brass section, but quickly switches to a mellow piano jazz, before just as unexpectedly returning to the opening riffs. In both the more relaxed and hard-hitting sections, Black Midi presents an incredible level of technical virtuosity rarely found in bands nowadays. The track “Sugar/Tzu” features pummeling guitar arpeggios and lightning-fast drumming by the immensely talented Morgan Simpson.

Staying true to its title, the songs in “Hellfire” mostly tell grim tales of murder and war, such as following a shell-shocked soldier in “Welcome to Hell” or a group of men being poisoned in “Eat Men Eat,” but Black Midi still manages to keep the tone relatively lighthearted with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that works in tandem with the album’s chaotic energy.

An online point of contention is frontman Geordie Greep’s voice, which many have described as nasal and somewhat annoying. Similarly, his manic, spoken-word style of singing has also drawn criticism. Bassist Cameron Picton takes vocal duty on the tracks “Eat Men Eat” and “Still,” but while his voice and singing is more traditional than Greep’s, Cameron sounds much less confident or commanding than his bandmate. While vocal performance was never one of Black Midi’s strengths, the vocal work fits well enough with the zany vibe of the record, though it may turn some people away.

“Hellfire” was easily my most anticipated record of 2022, and I am glad to say that Black Midi has delivered yet another banger of an album to remind audiences why they are considered by many critics to be one of the most progressive and important bands of the decade. In a span of less than three years, they have put out some of the most exciting rock albums the genre has seen in a long time, and it's clear that they are only just getting started.


Artist: Black Midi

Album: “Hellfire”

Label: Rough Trade

Favorite tracks: “Sugar/Tzu,” “Welcome to Hell,” “Eat Men Eat”

If you like: Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Black Country, New Road, Squid

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5