Review Summary: “I’m sorry," he told the alligator. He fired. The alligator jerked, did a backflip, thrashed briefly, was still. Blood began to seep out amoeba-like to form shifting patterns with the weak glow of the water. Abruptly, the flashlight went out.
Following last year’s avant-snooze Cavalcade
, Black Midi were on top of an abundance of ideas, an abundance of irritating ways of contorting them, and an unusually dire need of a redemption arc for such a young hype-shaped band-vehicle. They have apparently found it in the least likely place imaginable: full-on gonzo carnage. No longer is Black Midi strictly synonymous with lab-grown semblances of chaos; Hellfire
steps right into its titular brimstone, affording the band’s postmodern fables newfound stakes and dynamism. The upshot is far and away their most consistently focused record to date: unlike past narrations, which frequently scanned as background noise amidst overcalculated ‘chaos’, “Hellfire”’s subject matter is forthright enough to subjugate the instrumental romps that once stifled entire songs. “Sugar/Tzu”, for instance, dips its toes into a similar brand of prog whirlwind, but it incorporates this in support of a back-and-forth boxing match commentary with clear direction, rounded out by successive fleet-footed changes of pace. The band have stepped up their storytelling chops to a considerable degree, and their formerly stale instrumental ambitions finally have something worthwhile to play against. So far, so good.
It’s not quite a clean sweep, though. The storytelling in question begs further unpacking, not least because it reeks of the kind of imagination that grew up on an unbalanced diet of Thomas Pynchon, Oscar Wilde and The Mighty Boosh. Subject matter includes the diabolical Circean captain of a mine designed to harvest human stomachs, an unfortunate farmhand duped into murder by Satan himself, and a child gunman. It’s quirky; it’s absurd; it’s prime fodder for first-person storytelling so uniformly rambunctious that without the aid of a lyrics sheet you’ll likely confuse the band’s gawky narratorial punctuations (Random killing - no gang affiliation - no mob justice - MUURDEEEER!!!
) with their uncomfortable character outbursts (You fucking faggots ain’t seen the last of me yet
// He could depend on the strеngth of a man of manual labor / The perfect idiot for his need
). “The Defence” and “Welcome to Hell” offer serviceable satires of hypocritical prejudice towards sex workers and the infamous stiff-upper-lip dogma of the British military, respectively, but for the most part it’s unclear whether the band have any substantive statement to make with these narrative vignettes, or whether they simply dreamed up a host of problematic characters for the sake of injecting a little drama into their chaotic matrix. This isn’t a criticis- pahaha who am I kidding: it’s ambiguous as all ill-advised fuck and in no way helps their unshakeable impression of dabbling with eccentricity-for-the-sake-of-eccentricity like a solitary man with too much lubricant.
, for perhaps the first time in their career, they’ve found an indulgence that suits their style across the board. Geordie Greep’s oil slick of a voice is far more entertaining in the mouthbox of first person character rants than in the swarmy overhead perspective we previously came to associate him with, though his apparent allergy to expressing the slightest shred of pathos still covers many of his characterisations like a concrete ceiling. Conversely, bassist Cameron Picton has the impetus to raise his game from the mumble-charm of his past vocal contributions, finding his apparent performative awakening on the single ”Eat Men Eat”. He retains his understated style on the mellow highlight “Still”, possibly the most uncontroversially, miraculously enjoyable
Black Midi song to date (no mean feat considering its all-at-once interpolation of 1) Appalachian folk 2) the drippiest bollocks Thom Yorke ever saw fit to record and 3) good ol’ cartoonish fart-brass). Last but by no means least, it’s a whole lot easier to enjoy Morgan Simpson’s virtuosic drum performances now that the songs on hand are not contingent on his being by far their most engaging facet.
What to make of all this? The trio are at the top of their game, and if they haven’t grown out of their disposition for laboriously concocted indulgence, then they have at least worked out how to synthesise it towards more entertaining ends. That above all should be cause for attention. Beyond this, I doubt that Hellfire
will have much staying power: for the palatability it draws from its pulp aesthetics, it also inherits that medium’s disposition for binge-no-repeat consumption. It’s shallow and fleeting and momentarily gripping - and then it’s over. Lyrical delving and clarity of narration aside, there’s little to be had from this music that isn’t immediately apparent in the thrill of first impression - this will likely pose little issue to these songs’ role in Black Midi’s ever-growing live repertoire, but it reinforces the ongoing sense of their studio albums as calling cards rather than enduring statements. Will this bear much impact on whatever freaksongs they churn out next? Probably not. After all, it’s suspiciously easy to reinvent yourself when you supposedly never took yourself particularly seriously to begin with.