It’s difficult to describe exactly the way listening to black midi makes me feel. It’s even trickier to describe exactly what they sound like in general. Despite taking influence from progressive, avant-garde acts like Captain Beefheart, Primus and Frank Zappa, as well as classical sources like Tchaikovsky and Messiaen, the band has been lumped in with the popular canon of post-punk or, more dreadfully, the “Post-Brexit” wave. In truth, since the band made their breakthrough with the instantly iconic Schlagenheim, black midi has been on the forefront of some of the most dynamic, cutting-edge virtuosity in rock music, leaning heavier into their jazz influences on last year’s thrilling Cavalcade without losing a shred of their unique, energetic touch. However, where Cavalcade saw the band stripping back a bit and touching smoother, more atmospheric notes with songs like “Marlene Dietrich” and “Diamond Stuff,” Hellfire finds the group once again dialing up their hypnotic energy, pairing dizzying instrumentals with apocalyptic imagery for a result that sounds at times like you’ve found yourself in the middle of a Faustian Looney Tunes segment.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Geordie Greep has been flirting with calamity since the band’s beginning, but never before Hellfire have his lyrics been quite so pointed towards devastation. His gift for injecting spellbinding narratives into his tracks—delivered with an inimitable voice that wavers between full-bodied shouts and devious purring—is reminiscent of Tolkien’s desire to create worlds simply for the sake of having a place for the many characters in his head to reside. On “Sugar/Tzu,” he portrays a crafty, egotistical boxer with devious intent, as speedy arpeggios, elevated by Morgan Simpson’s incomparable drumming and the blaring saxophone of frequent collaborator Kaidi Akinnibi, punctuate the terrible tale. Boxing arenas serve as a very logical setting for a black midi track: a room full of piss, vigor, aggression and diametrically opposed characters who force a visceral reaction from the listener. By the time the narrator violently executes his opponent in the ring, the deep frenzy of the instrumental has provided something close to a justification for the fighter’s actions—an impressive feat for a track that weighs in at under four minutes long.
Elsewhere on the album’s pernicious voyage, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Cameron Picton guides the listener through the disastrous effects of man’s ill intent within a variety of settings. “Eat Men Eat” calls back to the evil mining company that made its debut in “Diamond Stuff,” zeroing in on a small troupe suffering under the rule of a malicious captain. Picton injects the story with his own staggering, terrible mental images, such as, “I love you, but I can feel my chest bubbling” and “Each day you wake and each night you sleep / I’ll be camped in your chest, burning, burning,” while also cleverly alluding to the characters’ sexuality and broader motivations.
“Eat Men Eat” is not only notable for its compelling narrative or the rapid, flamenco guitars that aid in crafting its atmosphere, but also for the strength of Picton’s vocal delivery. Earlier songs from the band that featured his lead vocals tended to sound a little more muted, which, while providing a charm of their own, created a tonal dissonance between himself and the more exuberant Greep. When he steps to the mic on Hellfire, it’s with a confidence that was absent in the past, as he dynamically elevates the tension on “Eat Men Eat” with his harsh yells and gritty delivery and, later in the tracklist, provides a satisfying apex to “Still” by belting out some high notes.
“Welcome to Hell,” arguably the album’s most concise mission statement, is among the finest songs the band has released to date. Providing an instantly energetic and memorable instrumental that fuses wartime quotes from Patton and brutal, vivid imagery, Greep invites the listener into a desolate, grotesque carnival of despair and mayhem. “Our bullets were made for men like you, the impotent idiots God forgot,” he snarls between spiraling keys, blaring horns, and addictive melodies that so accurately conjure the feeling of imminent cataclysm that they feel particularly suited to our present entropic system. Through this narrative, Greep provides an avatar for the audience that is unaccustomed to those things, and is eventually dishonorably discharged from his service, begging the question: What does all the violence and mayhem truly serve at the end of the day? Are wartime horrors born from justice, from servicing the egos of disreputable characters, or are they truly an inevitable desire from the ugliest depths of the human appetite?
The centerpiece of Hellfire has to be “The Race Is About To Begin,” a seven-minute suite that calls back to previous black midi narratives (the protagonists from “Welcome To Hell” and “Sugar/Tzu,” the towns of Schlagenheim and Salafessian that have served as past locations in the band’s universe) while proudly injecting a little bit of musical theater influence into the sonic structure. The song’s odd timing paired with the startling, dynamic instrumentation provide a canvas for Greep to dictate the internal monologue of the song’s narrator as he witnesses a horse race, spiraling through the many traumatic events of his life. Greep’s vocal delivery for the majority of this track is fully unhinged, sounding as though he is experiencing too many thoughts at once and is furiously trying to get them all out, like forcefully ejecting a poison. Eventually, the panic dies down, and the track closes out in soft despair with lyrics like, “The clown can be a martyr, the whore can be an angel.”
This despair is equally present in album closer “27 Questions,” a grim, cabaret-evoking number that finds its narrator witnessing a performer unraveling onstage with a number of unanswerable puzzles before he perishes. It sometimes seems like a purposeful function of black midi, to rope their listeners into these emotional paradoxes with the intention of eliciting a raw emotional response—a dramatic touch that heightens the effect of their already deranged-sounding score.
The provocative and wiry machinations of black midi certainly aren’t for everyone, and Hellfire is no exception. Though it mostly lacks the direct punchiness and instant gratification of an album like Schlagenheim, it provides a unique musical escapade that dashes deftly between genres and the depths of the human experience like a charging bull. Black midi isn’t here to charm you or to prove anything—they just want to take you to hell and back.
Jason Friedman is a writer who has haunted Philadelphia for a hundred years.