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The album cover for black midi's new album, "Hellfire." Photo courtesy of Apple Music.

REVIEW: ‘Hellfire’ burns fast and bright

When black midi first burst onto the music scene with their debut single “bmbmbm” in 2018, it was clear they were a band to watch. Their subsequent albums “Schlagenheim” and “Cavalcade,” released in 2019 and 2021 respectively, were met with universal critical acclaim, further cementing black midi’s place among some of the top bands working today. On July 15, 2022, black midi returned with “Hellfire,” an album that strangely feels like the best introduction to the band with its clear sense of identity and superb musicianship.

While black midi typically gets grouped in with the other bands out of England making waves in the post-punk scene like Dry Cleaning and Black Country, New Road, they stand out from the crowd with a heavy progessive rock influence not present in other acts. It makes midi’s music incredibly unique, but also difficult to approach.

The titular first track off “Hellfire” orients the listener to the acts they are about to witness. A military-march snare drum, staccato piano keys and Geordie Greep’s spoken-word style vocals set us up for an album which paints a grim picture of humanity’s future and the terrible acts men are capable of. The track doesn’t hold much weight on its own, but serves an important role within the context of the album as a necessary and functional intro.

Black midi’s music has always been best when Greep, bassist Cameron Picton and drummer Morgan Simpson are telling some sort of outlandish tale of fantastical characters. “Sugar/Tzu,” the album’s second track, is one such song, following the story of a “three-foot-three superfluous freak” who assassinates a wrestler, Sun Sugar, after Sugar’s match with fellow wrestler, Sun Tzu (not to be confused with the famous Chinese general and philosopher of the same name, though knowing black midi it’s absolutely a purposeful reference.)

If you don’t find yourself absorbed in the story that midi is trying to tell, you’ll certainly find yourself taken away by the immaculate musicianship with fast-paced arpeggiating guitar and synth licks rounding out the off-key piano chords and off-kilter vocal delivery.

Subsequent tracks “Eat Men Eat” and “Welcome to Hell” follow in a similar vein, with the former following two soldiers in love who run away together from their homophobic captain. The latter follows one “Pvt. Tristan Bongo” and his eventual discharge after becoming disillusioned with the military upon experiencing the horrors of war.

While “Eat Men Eat,” my favorite single from the album and now favorite song off the album, succeeds largely due to its musical elements (Picton’s commanding vocals and the tropicália clapping rhythms), “Welcome to Hell”’s ingenious lyrical content truly makes the track: “To die for your country does not win a war / To kill for your country is what wins a war,” and “Limbs rendered birds by the speed they flew off / A souped nothingness that once was your best friend” are two particularly strong highlights.

It’s at this point in the album, listening to tracks like “Still” and “The Defence,” that I had to ask myself how engaging this music was, truly? While black midi certainly experiments with tonality and chord structure in true prog-rock fashion, everything feels so pristine and so precise that it borders on stale. Even with these two tracks demonstrating some genre experimentation for the band, the playing is so crisp and so clean that they already feel like experts in that genre. They never truly experiment because their experiments only yield perfect results.

This also creates an air of superiority that looms over the album like a dark shadow. Of course, I’m sure any black midi fan would be quick to assert that their music taste is infinitely superior to anyone who does not listen to black midi, but it seems the band thinks this as well. A disappointing thought, considering that this simply isn’t the case. Only three albums in, black midi certainly hasn’t earned the right to present themselves as superior to most musicians.

These things considered, “Hellfire” is still extraordinarily enjoyable. Tracks like “The Race is About to Begin” and “27 Questions” feel like deft combinations of the brash and harsh sounds of “Schlagenheim” mixed with the intricate and very prog-rock heavy tunes of “Cavalcade.” The album takes the best of both of the worlds of their first two albums while adding in more unique elements to create black midi’s most cohesive album yet. Let’s just hope the praise doesn’t get to their heads more so than it already has.

John Scott is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at editorinchief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @JScott050901

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