Black Midi: Hellfire Album Review

As they’ve progressed, black midi have become increasingly interested in play-acting and costume as songwriting prompts. A lot of their material, to hear them tell it, begins with some version of the thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we tried to write a ___?” “When you want to do something original…use something as a model or inspiration that you know you definitely can’t do,” Greep has said. “Your failure will be interesting.” You can hear this impulse at work throughout Hellfire, as they offer mad-scientist takes on country songs (the pedal-steel and Hammond organ washes in “Still”) and even tropicália: The first two minutes of “Eat Men Eat” sounds for all the world like Caetano Veloso—wry, knowing, weightless. No pose lasts for more than a minute or two. The rhythm section on “Still” convulses repeatedly, and Cameron Picton’s vocal melody takes some intriguing, nearly Sondheim left turns, while “Eat Men Eat” careens from its quiet opening into a climax of screaming horns, like a large land mammal dying painfully.

Three albums in, it’s only growing more thrilling to watch the group navigate these hard swerves, each one arriving at a higher velocity, executed with even more breath-sucking precision. The songs don’t segue so much as upend each other like a procession of spiky blue Mario Kart shells. But as exhilarating as the highs are on Hellfire—the rampaging 32nd-note riff on “Sugar/Tzu” triggers gasp-laughs, for example—the world that Greep details and populates with his bustling characters can grow wearying, over time, in its emotional aridity. “Posterity will show me to be/The greatest the world has ever seen, a genius among nonentities,” blares Greep on “Sugar/Tzu”—a great line, but also a sneering pose he repeats one too many times throughout Hellfire: “Idiots are infinite, thinking men numbered,” he mutters on “The Race Is About to Begin.” This is the kind of insight you arrive at when you are 22 and most of the thoughts you have are concerned with making sure the world sees how smart you are.

There’s a deep suspicion—common to the sort of young, intense intellectuals who find themselves drawn to listening to or making complicated music—that surges of uncontrollable emotion are suspect, dangerous, in need of further, possibly forensic, inspection. That process of forensic inspection often feels like the same bloodshot-eyed force powering black midi’s music. Greep has a vibrato velvety enough to make the words “prostrate, supine” (from “The Defence”) sing like a Tom Jones ballad. But his crooning sounds the way a boy dancing awkwardly at a middle school dance looks; the movements are there, but hiding behind uneasy scare quotes that betray a distrust of strong feelings, of pleasure mechanisms.

There is also some wild-eyed Scott Walker energy at work in black midi somewhere—lyrics about military nightmare scenarios, the sort of acrid theater of being a crooner, the exaggerated Kabuki nature of all the pulled faces—the grimace, the scream. Greep will utter out-of-nowhere, completely non-idiomatic put-downs like “some people are as useless as lids on a fish’s eyes”—that’s a Scott Walker line if ever I’ve heard one. Like some of Walker’s more experimental later work, black midi’s music can feel curiously stunted and two-dimensional, despite its metatextual layers and fiendish complexity. If the intellect on Hellfire is feverish, the emotional temperature often dips to morgue levels; their music is better equipped to comment on emotion than to feel it, or express it. They continue to get over, as they always do, on pure conviction, riding the knife’s edge between clinical precision and crazed abandon.

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