To suggest Black Midi traffic in the chameleonic might be one of the greatest musical understatements in recent years. No less than Steve Albini, a fan of theirs we interviewed around the time of Schlagenheim, the group’s full-length debut, said every time he saw Black Midi perform live, they sounded like a different band. Such is the case with the group’s records, to an extent. Instead of sounding like another band on each successive recording, they sound like they’re tampering with different genres. There remain the Black Midi staples – Geordie Greep’s Claypoolian speak-sing delivery, their machine-gun stops, the distortion of meter and time in the name of generating heat. But, on Hellfire, the group’s third LP to date and their second in successive years, Black Midi are out to toy with the trappings of jazz – and they perform their task with King Crimson-level technical prowess and zeal.
Though the opening salvo in Black Midi’s new war front – the title track, clocking in at 1:24 – embraces the manic through Greep’s rapid-fire vocal delivery, it’s the fourth track, “Welcome to Hell”, that steals the show. That composition starts with a largely conventional beat on the kit, but once Greep’s guitar cuts in with an anguished kind of funkiness, all bets are off in the conventional sense of the word. There are excellent, rapid-fire stops and starts courtesy of drummer Morgan Simpson’s tightly wrapped snare; at about the three-minute mark, the band tosses the pre-tenses out the window and simply begins to thrash. But, even here, there is a method to the madness, with the trio staying in rock-solid unison as notes start violently careening off the walls.
Yes, to the point, Black Midi’s song selection (and sequencing) on the new LP tends toward the bizarre, and listeners will welcome something so refreshingly raw and dissonant. After the angry romp of “Welcome to Hell”, for example, the band offers a true-to-life, low-pulse ballad, “Still”, complete with softly sung lead vocals, acoustic guitars, and sensual easy-listening horns. An earlier track, “Sugar/Tzu”, enters with a wrestling announcer doing his best P.T. Barnum, but after some violent snare hits, the entire song descends into a low-key mélange of post-rock asides. Well, it does that for just a minute; Black Midi return to a thrashing good time shortly thereafter. “Dangerous Liaisons”, complete with pedal steel, similarly offers an odd and unexpected low boil, with Greeg crooning at times to the point of satire.
But, above all, Black Midi are here to mesmerize – and there are more than a handful of moments on Hellfire where they do just that. “27 Questions”, the excellent closer, has an incredible and wonderfully drum- and piano-led exercise routine in its early verses; think Cheer-Accident by way of 1970s prog-rock. “27 Questions”, during some of its bridges, descends into pools of noise – at several points, the piano just gives up and starts hitting random notes high up the keys – but Simpson does a masterful job holding together the proceedings. Greep, at least here, is a (relatively) calm voice at the center of the storm.
Low points? Hard to say. There are unnecessary touches – the 26-second clip “Half Time”, halfway through the LP, is cute but not needed. “The Race Is About to Begin”, at seven minutes, the record’s lengthiest track, is flamboyant and EPIC (capital letters intended) but some listeners looking only for the band’s signatures might be calling in the services of a better editor. Those who buy the ticket and stick to the ride will be treated to a kind of Mancini-scored House of Horrors. That’s intended as a compliment, of course.
The record is a real workout – a mind-bender – and Greep, in particular, unleashes arhythmic guitar lines and blurred line readings of his lead vocals nearly to the point of exhaustion. He positively melts down halfway through “The Race Is About to Begin”. But that’s what we’ve come to love about Black Midi. Hellfire is a wonderful entry in the band’s growing and impressive canon, the sort of recording invented for critics to throw phrases like “tour-de-force” at it. With their third LP, Black Midi continue to put out adventurous and challenging music that keeps listeners on the tips of their toes. We only can wish they greet 2023 with their fourth LP in as many years. God bless these kids.