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Album Review: black midi – Hellfire (Rough Trade)

4.5
Black Midi - Hellfire | Album Review

‘Is a sin committed every moment of every day?’ asks Geordie Greep on the coda of 27 Questions; the final track from this bloody affair – a loose concept album about all those sentenced to hell. It’s as if Greep is just titillating us now, preparing a large glass of water to wash away the blood from all fates suppressed on Hellfire’s succeeding tracks.

Whatever your stance, you can not argue that there has been a dull moment with black midi lately. They’ve just spent a year in and out of odd promotional stunts. Whether that’s supporting themselves live as a mock up band, hiring mimes to join them on stage, selling their own black midi wine, or uploading unwarranted business advice videos to social media. And on Hellfire this same larger-than-life treatment is applied. Characters, who were once given the privilege of third-person analysis, are now given their own voices (quite literally). The cast varies from a severe army general (who sounds like Roger Waters at his most deranged), to a duped farmhand, who suffers from a slight lisp. Dramatic individuals have cameos, receiving names like ‘Mrs Gonnoreha’ and ‘an Eye Sore’. And whilst doing this the instrumental work follows suit, with an intense backing band providing uniformed staccato stabs, each shot at with pointy arrows, making this record a successful graduate from the Charles Mingus school.

Still, the above is just one element of session musicianship that the band use to their advantage. The arm-lengthed album credits are a joy to read. I never thought i’d see the day when 24 submitted fan burps would make Eat Men Eat; a bulldozer of a track that missed me many meals upon first hearing it. The way the bass and guitar lock here is just like a conversation; when one is quiet, the other fills it’s silence. The part where the guitar moves from vapour into liquid is just jaw dropping. Strings enter and take central stage, filling the track with blood chilling suspense. The lyrics too, send their own statement about homophobia in the workplace, and the hero’s journey in general. It’s laughable that in the bands recent Glastonbury performance this song got cut, due to what I can only guess is nonexistent homophobia. Typical corporate bollocks.

Following this they continue their classic streak with Welcome To Hell, imposing enough attention to gain entry with opening line ‘LISTEN!’; a confidence no doubt soaked up watching Scorcese’s fatless character study movies. This is backed by an ever panoramic birds-eye instrumental, whence Picton syncopates himself in a strummed and restless funk vice. Murky horns and keys orchestrate him whimsically, while Simpson’s contrasting loungey drums (somewhat reminiscent of peak era Can – deservedly louder in the mix than previously) shunt against the borders of Greep’s fireside story, continuing to make him the first egg broken into the drummers omelete. In general the track is the musical equivalant of burning all your crops with the secret knowledge that they will grow back more fertile.

Sugar/Tzu is another one of these statement like moments, asking humanity some serious questions, as a resent-filled child murders a respected boxing champion for fame. It brings to mind John Lennon’s untimely death as this story pans out. With the instrumental punching and recoiling, it is like the musical equivalent of said ringside drama. True rock opera masterwork. I can guarantee this’ll drive listeners to lift cars, roar, and then flip them over with their bare hands.

By the second leg of the LP, black midi show no sign of weakness. On the latter half of Still and The Race Is About To Begin, lengthy sections of becalmed ambience mark a dynamic range to die for. On Still, the soundscape of harmonic guitars and recorded birdsong paint many cinematic images. I think of the boat scene in Night Of The Hunter (1955); nighthawks on the bank of a river where Picton sits mourning his lost love. On Race, it’s as if Greep has ran out of patience. Now he feels it a chore to waste his breath on hell’s worst criminals, and instead serenades us about their fates. The main event of the same song incorporates Greep rapping this ‘nonsong‘ at unbelievable speed. However many words are caught will depend on how well you slept last night. It also includes one of the albums very best moments; a few seconds of brass that could come straight out of Disney’s Jungle Book. I smirk every time.

The penultimate track The Defence is another well-fleshed moment, arriving like a francophile phantom, and telling it’s entire story in a footnote. Sure, a notable departure from Greep’s usual life littering approach, but he masters this short story with not one sign of decay. Instrumentally it’s anchored by a double crossed accordion and lap steel guitar, while Greep croons (50s style) in the voice of a back alley pimp with an aversion to religion. 

And 27 Questions is damn good closer. Thanks to it’s deranged show-tune jingle that runs along at Greep’s heels, and with the (often cartoonish) lyrics concerning an actor with one foot in the grave, black midi officially hand out the card for their most dramatic song yet, taking on some serious Master and Margarita-scoped dramatism. Every instrument mixed here is in it’s right place, not too cluttered (an easy mixing sin to make), with the perfect amount of space between. The acoustician lore that having an all-female mixing team seems to be a strong winning argument for this.

With such countless stains of irony that run through these 38 minutes, listeners will undoubtedly sit questioning whether their eyes are wet from sadness or laughter.

Key Tracks: ‘Sugar/Tzu’ , ‘Eat Men Eat’, ‘Welcome To Hell’, ‘Still’, ‘The Race Is About To Begin’, ‘Dangerous Liasons’, ‘The Defence’ , ’27 Questions’

‘Hellfire’ will be released via Rough Trade Records on July 15 2022.

Pre order Hellfire here