Music

black midi ‘Hellfire’ Review

A black midi album can be a thrill ride, and the very same black midi album can feel like homework. It all depends on your headspace. The first time I listened to the band’s new Hellfire I was pretty sure I hated it. The second time through, I loved it. On subsequent listens, both the appreciation and the annoyance have returned. I’ve come to think of those reactions as the yin and yang of black midi, complementary forces that catalyze each other and hold each other in tension. Admittedly, the madcap turbulence in this band’s music is the cause of my swings between ecstasy and revulsion, not an effect — they’re the ones stirring me up, not vice versa — but it feels like they’re trying ever harder to elicit such strong reactions. If so, it’s working.

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The best black midi album is still their 2019 debut Schlagenheimon which the London band — then a quartet, now a trio — showed off expansive vision, phenomenal talent, and unrepentant weirdness while cutting listeners a path through their dense thicket of ideas. On songs like the breathtaking opener “953,” fractured blasts of guitar collided with Morgan Simpson’s aerobic wizardry on the drum kit. The tweaked motorik anxiety of “Speedway” gave way to wide open pastures of peaceful beauty on “Western,” which were later displaced by gnarly noise-rock depth charges on “bmbmbm.” It was a wild ride through a genreless wilderness, unpredictable and invigorating, cerebral and visceral in equal measure. Their horizons seemed wide open.

As anyone who heard last year’s sophomore effort Cavalcade knows, black midi have not gotten any less adventurous. Those wide-open horizons feel a lot more cluttered, though — even more so on Hellfire, out this Friday. More than ever, black midi are living up to their namesake, defined in their press bio as “a Japanese music genre where a MIDI file is stuffed with so many musical notes that its visual representation looks solid black.” The trio’s maximalist impulses have inspired a constant pile-on of ideas and aesthetics, resulting in music so layered, so hyperactive, so busy, that it inevitably overwhelms. Even the pivots to serenity come at you like jarring turns on an especially herky-jerk rollercoaster.

It’s never been possible to passively engage with black midi’s music, and when I’m on their wavelength, their appeal is tied up in that refusal to ever stop going in. But the sounds they’re throttling us with have only grown more polarizing and harder to hang with. Largely setting aside the various “post-” genres that made their early work so appealing — post-punk, post-rock, post-hardcore — their current style evokes the gaudy glitz of mid-20th century showbiz blown out to proggy art-rock extremes. When factoring in the short-story-collection aspect of the lyrics, it can feel like being subjected to all the different interactions in an apartment building at once — someone doing intricate needlework, their neighbors in a shouting match, most people watching TV — while the building collapses to rubble.

Instrumentally it’s cinematic: not in the Explosions In The Sky post-rock sense but in the old-fashioned Hollywood sense, with grandiose orchestral passages telegraphing epic-scale drama. It’s not just a matter of incorporating a string section for the first time — the sheer number of instruments listed in the credits for each song is staggering. Discordant melodies and chord changes remain standbys, but now so are military marches and frantic 16th-note freakouts. Guitarist Geordie Greep, the band’s primary vocalist, adopts the affect of a Vegas lounge singer often provoked into blustery tirades. As for the words, Greep and his fellow lyricist, bassist Cameron Picton, write narratives as heady and complex as their soundtracks, mapping out a vast extended universe of “first-person tales from morally suspect characters.” The end result is a little bit Fiery Furnaces and a little bit Mr. Bungle, which is to say it’s a lot.

Some listeners will find this relentless knotty onslaught impossibly rad. Others will just find it impossible. Personally, I respect the fearless ambition but rarely enjoy it as much as I did before they started piling on the exaggerated schmaltz. Greep’s vocals are a major sticking point; I preferred black midi when his snarling croon felt more like part of the texture than the spotlight attraction. And although he’s capable of writing lines both vivid (“Some people are as useless as legs on a fish’s eyes”) and thought-provoking (“To die for your country does not win a war/ To kill for your country is what wins a war”), in general his shtick combines with the bananas arrangements to render his prose nearly impenetrable. There’s a lot to like about the shapeshifting barnburner “Sugar/Tzu,” but you have to submit to extensive levels of geekery to fully enjoy a song about a young boy committing an assassination at a boxing match between two 600-pound fighters in the year 2163.

Not that the barrier to entry is much lower when Picton takes the lead; Pitchfork recently summed up his “Eat Men Eat” as “a saga involving a dodgy dinner, an illicit affair, and the vengeance of a homophobic captain” centered on the mining company he introduced on Cavalcade‘s “Diamond Stuff.” It’s a level of world-building common to video games, fantasy mythologies, and Dungeons & Dragons-style improv RPGs. I’ll take that kind of thoughtful storytelling over Viagra Boys satirically ranting about “creepy crawlers in the vaccines” any day, but parsing it requires a level of close-reading that hardly even feels compatible with the music’s dizzying churn. You basically can’t interact with Hellfire on a surface level. Either you dive deep into the belly of the beast or it chews you up and spits you out.

Greep has explained, “If Cavalcade was a drama, Hellfire is like an epic action film.” It’s true; Both albums are studies in sensory overload, but this one is even more dense and intense. Greep’s fondness for jagged intervals, discordant chord progressions, and thunderous low end persists. I love that Picton recruited dozens of people to contribute drones to one song (“Still”) and dozens of other people to contribute burps to another (“Eat Men Eat”). Simpson is an artful whirlwind, one of the best drummers alive. It’s totally wild that they’re all only 23 years old. Barely adults, they are some of the best in the world at kicking up an insane racket, which was what drew me to black midi in the first place. Yet given the album’s tendency toward self-indulgent chaos, the parts of Hellfire that I connect with most are the quiet, graceful, pretty segments where the band gives its audience space to breathe between eruptions. It makes me wonder what these gnarled, nervy wiz kids might accomplish if age allows them to (ever so slightly) smooth out and loosen up.

Hellfire is out 7/15 on Rough Trade.

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