Black Midi – Hellfire (Rough Trade)

Less than half a decade into their recording career, the prodigious talents that make up London trio Black Midi are already onto their third album, Hellfire.

The band – composed of guitarist and singer Geordie Greep, drummer Morgan Simpson and bass player Cameron Picton – started recording Hellfire about two weeks after their second album, Cavalcade, was released in May last year. The new LP sounds like a continuation of the jazzy, proggy sound explored on Cavalcade, rather than a totally fresh slate.

Hellfire kicks off with a track of the same name featuring electronic burbles and marching drums and staccato violin. Greep is almost rapping in his curious accent (does everyone from Walthamstow sound like this?).

Recent single ‘Sugar/Tzu‘ keeps up the furious pace; it starts with a jazzy refrain and bursts into a dexterous riff and lyrics about a ‘futuristic boxing match’. Greep sings: ‘Sun Sugar in
the red trunks and Sun Tzu in the blue; the Leadweight clash of the century,
February 31 st 2163
.’ Meanwhile, the album’s lead single, ‘Welcome to Hell’, is a total killer, with scuzzy guitars and drummer Simpson orchestrating the constantly switching time signatures. Justin Hawkins from The Darkness waxed lyrical about the song in a recent YouTube video.

It seems Black Midi get by with a little help from their friends – aside from the three lads, there are regular contributors Kaidi Akinnibi (sax) and Seth Evans (piano), as well as around
a dozen extra guest performers, including violin player Jerskin Fendrix, pedal steel guitarist B. J. Cole and Spanish percussionist Demi García Sabat. The latter adds flamenco-style
handclapping to ‘Eat Men Eat’, one of the two compositions from Picton, who seems to have properly found his voice. On the band’s first album, Schlagenheim, he showcased a powerful scream. But on Hellfire he’s more melodious, slightly reminiscent of Colin Moulding from XTC.

Another highlight is ‘The Defence’, a wonderful ode to a brothel with hilarious lyrics: ‘My girls are all destined for hell, or so says our priest. But find me a Christian who spends as much time on their knees.’ I want to see Greep busk this song on the streets of Paris, or on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur, complete with accordion. It’s just marvellous.

But for me the album’s best track is the finale, ‘27 Questions’, which tells the story about a show in ‘late 63’ in an unnamed city by the fictional Freddie Frost, a ‘big star before the war’. It has an introduction evocative of David Bowie‘s ‘Beauty and the Beast’, deliciously insidious verses, and a music hall-like interlude that Eric Idle would have killed for – it sounds like it’s been poached directly from the Monty Python’s Meaning of Life soundtrack. It also features Greep’s most poetic lyrics yet, beautiful in their simplicity: ‘Do nuns fornicate? And do scientists pray? Is a sin committed every moment of every day?’

Hellfire no doubt showcases Black Midi’s strongest set of lyrics yet. It sounds like many of the songs started as words with the music built up around them (I may be wrong but that’s the impression I get). This seems like the reverse of Schlagenheim, where the four original members (including the exceptionally talented Matt Kwasneiwski-Kelvin) jammed and jammed until they struck aural gold.

Perhaps Hellfire doesn’t demonstrate as vast a sonic leap as the one between the first two records. Hellfire certainly has a lot more spunk than the jazzy Cavalcade, but not as much as Schlagenheim, characterised by its explosive post rock and math rock leanings. For their fourth album, I’d love them to wipe the slate clean once more and leave the prog-jazz sound behind. Is this likely? I’ve seriously no idea. Ultimately, Black Midi make music for themselves and don’t give a shit what the critics think about it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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