Where does one even begin with the torrent of charm that is black midi? In 2019, their debut LP Schlagenheim methodically and relentlessly laid down one of the most memorable albums of the decade, with brazen disregard for musical boundaries or any shred of normalcy. The band matured quickly though, keeping that same fiery spirit but upping the delivery with last year’s silky, sprawling Cavalcade, landing on several publications ‘best of’ lists for it’s increased focus on theatrics.
From the outside, Cavalcade might have seemed like a side-step for the band, not in terms of progression, but perhaps in continuity. Had black midi found their sound, or was the sleeker, vaguely retro aesthetic just another phase of experimentation? In the end, it could be argued it was a little of both. While their bulkier, heavier elements were indeed scaled back, the progressive, accentuated use of combo and orchestral sections was opening up a new world altogether for the band… and of course, new ways to turn that world on its head. Which brings us to the glorious Hellfire.
There’s no getting around it – Hellfire is easily black midi’s most thrilling and ambitious record to date. The album’s harrowing war story narrative, as presented in the context of hapless solider Tristan Bongo, is both harrowing and bizarre. Tales of grandeur, poisonings, shootings, and raids abound, each told with unsettling amounts of poetic irony and conviction. Whether it’s vengefully descending on a coastal town or tearful, disoriented letters home, black midi spares no lyrical detail when it comes to telling you the story.
Geordie Greep and Cam Picton have both progressed far from the impressionistic storytelling of their early days, producing gripping passage after gripping passage of wartime drama, each hitting milestones in their respective styles. Take, for instance, Greep’s absolutely incredible rapid fire flow on songs like “Hellfire” and “The Race is About to Begin” for example. Have you ever wanted to know what King Crimson, Leonard Bernstein, and Kendrick Lamar would sound like if they all rehearsed in the same room? We wouldn’t be surprised if it sounded something like this. Hellfire‘s singles were good, but they did little to prepare us for what was really coming.
The record’s second half is steeped in the nearly-noir, dancing tensely with lounge and samba, waiting for the perfect moment to strike back with thick, grizzly bass and guitars. “Dangerous Liaisons,” one of the records most intense tracks, plays cat and mouse with the listeners, as well as the ‘black clad gang man,’ climaxing with brutal results when the jig is finally up. This brutality, when it surfaces, does actually remind us of the the aural impressions the band left on us with songs like “953” off of Schlagenheim, but here, it only shows up as punctuation. It’s for the best, though. Upon ingesting Hellfire for what it is, one rarely clamors for the familiar. If anything, one finds themselves trying to soak up every delirious detail.
Black midi continues to establish themselves as players in a league all their own with masterful manipulation of storytelling, genre, and overall sense drama. Hellfire is a brilliant album, and powerful examination of the effects of post-traumatic stress on a personal level, giving us a twisted glimpse at the timeless tragedy that is war itself, and how we get there.
Definitely, definitely, definitely buy a Hellfire vinyl if you can, it comes with a Flexi-disc that contains a live recording of the band that was engineered by Steve Albini. Depending where you get it from, you might end up with a different song. Isn’t that neat? We got ours from Rough Trade, which you can check out here. We’ve got stuff from standards, Delta Sleep, Ando San and more coming up so stay tuned, and bang our automated caffeine line here if you’re so inclined. Love you bunches.