The Only Way is Up on black midi’s Highway to “Hellfire”
Issue 1, Volume 113
London trio black midi graced the burgeoning British post-punk scene with their debut single “Bmbmbm” in 2018. A live performance of the track captivated the rock world with its linear, chaotic crescendo and lead singer Geordie Greep’s garbled, eccentric vocal style. black midi’s debut album, “Schlagenheim,” was met with heaps of critical praise the following year, cementing it as a band to watch. Its followup, “Cavalcade” (2021), expanded the scope of their musical skill by displaying a more dynamic emotive range and ambitious compositions, while drawing from classic progressive rock influences like King Crimson. On its newest effort “Hellfire,” black midi further expands on and transforms its technical prowess, narrative idiosyncrasy, and compositional complexity, leading to its best album yet.
“Hellfire” is both distinct from and an evolution of black midi’s previous work. On “Hellfire,” black midi exceeds the standard of dense, chaotic musical compositions it is well known for. The rapid guitar arpeggios and drumming on “Sugar/Tzu,” the frenzied piano and percussion on “27 Questions,” and the tense, blood-pumping riffs on “Welcome to Hell” and “The Race Is About To Begin” are a testament to the band’s creative and memorable instrumentation. Greep’s expressive vocals accompany the album’s incredible instrumentals, contributing a bombastic theatricality to the already dramatic compositions on “Hellfire.” He showcases the full range and extent of his vocal capabilities with his passionate croons on “The Defence,” violent bellows on “Dangerous Liaisons,” and speedy talk-singing on “The Race Is About To Begin.” On the two songs bassist Cameron Picton performs in, he demonstrates a similar vocal range with his fiery delivery in the climax of “Eat Men Eat” and emotional vulnerability on “Still,” which is not as present in Greep’s vocal performances on “Hellfire’s” other songs. Nevertheless, both singers are astounding on “Hellfire,” and show a remarkable evolution in vocal talent since “Schlagenheim.”
“Hellfire” demonstrates black midi’s growth not only vocally, but also in its compositional versatility. No single part of the album ever sounds the same due to the enthralling, ever-changing tonal nature of the music. “Hellfire” also explores a wide assortment of genres throughout its runtime, such as jazz fusion, progressive rock, cabaret, and flamenco. The album’s willingness to dip its toes into many genres adds a variety and unpredictability to its already phenomenal instrumentals, a variety not only present in its genre, but also in the tone of its individual songs. In contrast to the sonic bedlam of “Schlagenheim” and the acoustic balladry of “Cavalcade,” “Hellfire” opts for a mix of the two, with songs like “The Race” and “27 Questions,” transitioning from chaotic to peaceful passages and back again.
However, black midi are not just effete alchemists, blending genres like chemicals from test tubes. Their distinct narrative personality is just as essential to their music as their technical wizardry. “Hellfire” is presented as a loose concept album, with an overarching narrative stringing together select stories about evil people and their sins that condemn them to hell. The main idea of the album is rather dark, and many of the individual narratives of the songs are similarly dark as shown in songs like “Dangerous Liaisons,” where a farmer is tasked by Satan, disguised as a mafioso, to strangle another person to death for money. Despite the superficial weight of the album’s narratives, much of “Hellfire” is still bombastically absurd, as seen in songs such as “Sugar/Tzu,” which tells the story of a young child in the year 2163 assassinating a famous boxer in a prize match against his rival, or “Eat Men Eat,” which follows the captain of a mining team who poisons the food of his employees to be able to harvest their stomach acid and turn it into red wine. Even on the album’s more serious narratives, the lyrics often show some tonal dissonance, such as on the aforementioned “Dangerous Liaisons,” in which the farmer mentions how “temptation had [him] by the balls,” or on “The Race,” where one line lists off the ridiculous names of several racehorses: “That’s Lucky Star, Eye Sore, Doctor Murphy, Sun Tzu, The Clap, Mr. Winner, Spot, Wallace, Mrs. Gonorrhea, Perfect P, Deadman Walking, and The Company Favorite.” “Hellfire” shows black midi’s capability in providing compelling, meaningful narratives peppered with flecks of levity.
“Hellfire” is a showcase of black midi’s musical talent and evolution. It shows great improvement from the relative tonal homogeneity of “Schlagenheim” and “Cavalcade” in the variety of the album’s tone and genre, as well as its music as a whole. It features the band’s best performances yet. All that remains constant is black midi’s ability to balance captivating narratives and goofy humor with zany, manic instrumentals and impressive technicality. “Hellfire” shows an upward trend that is hopefully yet to end; black midi is on fire.