“It does not matter what your name is in business, nor what your game is. It matters whether you can move to it.” So said Black Midi guitarist-vocalist Geordie Greep during one of his infamous Instagram Live sessions. Off the cuff as these comments may have been, they are remarkably indicative of the ethos of the band.
Black Midi, a name referencing the difficult strain of IDM, is a trio formed initially at London’s BRIT School; curiously named on the school’s list of alumni below the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse. Taking influence from neither their namesake nor from those who share their alma mater, the group indulges primarily in the aesthetics of post-punk and progressive rock- the former more so on their first record, while the latter characterizes their second.
Hellfire, Black Midi’s third studio LP, was released on July 15, 2022, and proves to be a refinement on all aspects of their sound. The quasi-concept album begins at the end of life, with Greep’s spoken word taking center stage over the demented funeral procession-like instrumental. He delivers a polemic on the gradual disintegration of a sinful life before thanking the listener and inviting them to “come in, come in.”
What follows conceptually is a series of tales of depravity narrated by Greep and vocalist/bassist Cameron Picton, befitting the album’s proposed locale of Hell. “Sugar/Tzu” is the first of these stories. Greep’s documentation of a boxing match between Sun Sugar and Sun Tzu (presumed to represent the struggle between war and peace) is soundtracked by sonic ebbs and flows that crescendo with Zappa-esque arpeggios played at breakneck speed.
Picton takes the spotlight on “Eat Men Eat,” in which he describes a mining captain who poisons his workers and harvests their bodily fluids. A bustling barrage of orchestration and acoustics brings the listener through the twisted narrative, ending with a sequence of manic spurts from a saxophone. Similar instrumental palettes turn up on the covetous track “Still,” albeit in a resoundingly more tempered fashion.
Another set of complimentary songs are presented in the form of “Welcome to Hell” and “The Race is About to Begin.” Both are centered around the fictional Tristan Bongo, who spirals in and out of degenerate gambling before joining the military, developing PTSD, and ultimately being discharged for mental instability. The band pairs his journey with consistent homages to the prog-metal tendencies of Primus, especially in their incorporation of repeated musical phrasing into each song, creating a listening experience akin to being whacked over the head.
Hellfire’s last three tracks all adopt a similarly meandering progression, though they do not cease to devolve into raucous cacophonies without a moment’s notice. “The Defense” is likely the most mellow cut on the record, featuring a sultry ballad about a self-righteous pimp, accompanied by melodramatic keys and strings that would fit snugly as the backdrop of a late-night cabaret. The closer, “27 Questions,” presents another death scene, this time of nightclub singer Freddie Frost, who collapses of an apparent heart attack after a passionate rant in which he attempts to ask 27 obscure questions about the nature of life and the universe. His questions are sung as though part of a show tune, with whimsically trad accompaniment, striking a sharp contrast with the hellish progressive passages that precede it and quickly return once the questions are finished.
As Greep sings about Frost’s onstage demise backed by sour piano chords atop a dreadful swelling of dissonance, the record comes to a close. Mulling over the 39 minutes of boundary-pushing progressive rock leading up to that point, it’s not a stretch to say that Black Midi has pulled together an artistic statement serving as an excellent rebuttal to those who claim that “rock is dead.” Hellfire, as a result, is unquestionably a contender for the title of album of the year, and required listening for anyone interested in the trajectory of rock music in the 2020s.