Sometimes it’s during the quiet moments when dread sinks in, its tendrils seeping through the deceptively safe stillness like the Demogorgon prowling its way through the Upside Down. UK trio Black Midi know the disarming power of tranquility, and they harness it to powerful effect on their third album, Hellfire.
Now, tranquility is only relative. Compared to the terror-inducing mania of the London group’s previous albums, 2019’s Schlagenheim and its 2021 followup, Cavalcade, Hellfire is a quieter affair (despite its incendiary title). To be frank, the unhinged lunacy of Hellfire’s predecessors can be a bit of a headache if you’re not in the mood for jarring time signature changes and lengthy jams comprised of blistering noise freakouts and free jazz skronk that rattle your brain like the pea inside a can of spray paint.
Amidst this chaos, black midi have demonstrated a sharp ear for melody and harmony, the twine that ties the mess together. On Hellfire, the band further attunes its melodic and harmonic sensibilities. With a slight twang and slide, rambling acoustic guitars, light brass, and sweetly melancholic vocals, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the first half of “Still” for an Elliott Smith song. “Dangerous Liaisons” unfurls like a classic film score. And “The Defence,” with soothing slide and quivering vocals over gentle acoustic finger-picking that build, flourishes into pure splendour. Yet “Still” faces turbulence at its midpoint before reaching a denouement that feels like daybreak after a harrowing night. Chaos takes over “Dangerous Liaisons,” as could be expected by the title.
Frontman Geordie Greep says if Cavalcade was a drama, Hellfire is an epic action film. I don’t know about epic action film, but the band does take its theatricality to another level. With a loaded carousel of morally suspect characters and a strong, clear concept, it’s easy to envision Hellfire, or even individual songs like “27 Questions,” as a cursed rock opera. On the title track, I imagine curtains parting to unveil oddities and horrors like the cast of 1932 pre-Code horror drama Freaks. And after this minute-and-a-half prelude, a fight bell rings, signalling the start of “Sugar/Tzu”; a voice not unlike legendary boxing announcer Michael Buffer hypes the audience: “LET’S SEE SOME THUNDEEERRRRRRRRRRR!!!” Like a grand Zappa bit, the song’s a
whirling dervish of percussion and jolting brass. When Greep’s not playing carnival barker, his voice recalls David Bowie; “Sugar Tzu” and its more tempered following track, “Eat Men Eat,” call to mind the late icon’s darker material released towards the end of his life, the dazzling Black Star. And “The Race Is About To Begin,” Hellfire’s longest song at over seven minutes, is one of the album’s most intense songs—pure intensity.
The mini-compositions that animate Hellfire bring a different energy than the free-jam freakouts of black midi’s past work, but they’re no less enthralling; it’s still hard to predict where any given track from the new suite will go. Many of Black Midi’s old songs are like endurance exercises, mbut trimming the fat to pull stronger focus has helped the band execute a stronger concept, resulting in Black Midi’s most consistent, fully realized, adventurous, and even daring effort yet.
Pre-order Hellfire by black midi HERE
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