Sunday, July 24, 2022

black midi go to hell and back on new album ‘Hellfire’

London experimental rock trio Geordie Greep, Cameron Picton and Morgan Simpson, known together as black midi have, nearly since their formation in 2017, been regarded as one of Britain’s most original and exciting new bands.

Their noise rock/post-punk/experimental sound has garnered the band considerable critical acclaim, including a nod from the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2019 for ‘Schlagenheim’. And, since the return of gigs and easing of lockdown restrictions the band have gone from strength to strength. 

Touring seemingly constantly,  they are currently in Europe, with UK and North American dates coming up later in the year.

The hiatus of founder Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin in 2020 has meant the band, as on their previous record ‘Cavalcade’, continues to miss his distinguished guitar and occasional vocal contributions on the new record ‘Hellfire’. But they have built on the mele of instrumentation which defined ‘Cavalcade’. Occupying the space between the absurd and the genuine, the purpose behind the band’s sound has often been confusing – how serious should we be taking this eclectic sound? Well, the band have always been keen to stress that it’s all about fun.  Certainly, the title track and opener on ‘Hellfire’ maintain this mood. Frequent collaborators Kaidi Akinnibi and Seth Evans ensure this with the addition of their bursting saxophone and the cacophony of keys and synths.

As lead vocalist Geordie Greep said of ‘Cavalcade’“The whole thing with this album was just making it a lot more melodic but also making the crazy bits a lot more crazy. Making it crazy in both directions—more accessible moments, and more tangible, but also more insane, more crazy, more funny.” Certainly, there has been a continuation of this on ‘Hellfire’. As the band intended, in certain moments of respite they offer something more accessible: more pop-driven, more effortless. The acoustic elements on ‘Still’, right in the middle of the record could almost remind one of Elliot Smith with its sweet and soft vocals.

But moments like these are brief intervals in the mayhem of much of the album, where the ensemble of instruments and styles could even be overwhelming. The intensity of the instrumentation is matched by the frantic lyrics of Greep, who spins dark and twisted tales of death, prostitution, and war. Through constant use of first-person narrative, the band creates new, often troubled characters – a mentally scarred navy sailor on leave from the war in ‘Welcome to Hell’ and a murdering mad man in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. Perhaps these dark readings of humanity should be interpreted as the band's reading of our current reality. Or maybe we should take these narratives with a pinch of salt, and see the cynical humour of the record.

If ‘Hellfire’ were a play it might be a comedy or a tragedy, and as an album, it might be described as a calamitous rock opera style record, with its surrealism a reminder of experimental rock heroes Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. In the final tracks of the album, this is crystalised. The penultimate track ‘The Defence’ is a crescendo of chaos, describing the life of a man who solicits prostitutes, while using holy imagery, which, in its juxtaposition, heightens the darkness of the character. This coincides with the musical height of the album, where the song begins with simplistic flamenco-style guitar before the entrance of drums, keys and brass which augment the operatic nature of the track. The final track ‘27 Questions’, concludes the stories of the rock opera, rounding off the album in similar theatrics to its opener. On a serious note, the reflective questions could leave one feeling pensive, but take into account the humorous narrator: actor Freddie Frost, and again this is a reminder to not take any of it too seriously.

‘Hellfire’ continues to showcase black midi’s ability to create music that thrills both in its musical and lyrical content. With a devoted fanbase often trying to decipher the meaning behind the band's work, this album offers an entirely new array of content to be picked over and analysed. Their self-belief continues to drive the band forward as they take creative risks, taking the road less travelled when it comes to rock, and defying attempts to classify them: as ‘post-punk’, ‘noise rock’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘serious’, ‘silly’. Instead, they are able to occupy space within all these fields.


Annie Hackett


Image: ‘Hellfire’ official album cover

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