The Quietus | Features | album of the week

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Photo by Atiba Jefferson

It is a tradition as old as time. From the buildings that look like Toby jugs in Bosch’s hallucinogenic luminations, to the myriad quirky tortures that await bad automatons in Futurama’s Robot Hell, depictions of the Bad Place have been utterly absurd forever. The representations in the Bible are no less caricatural, far more ridiculous than terrifying. Indeed, the book of Revelation describes Hell as “the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night forever and ever…” pretty wild stuff.

It is this vision of Hell that seems to guide Black Midi through their third album. Hellfire. He is bound by this contradiction; some of his hellish conceits are so bad they’re just plain funny. While demonic horrors lurk around every corner, frontman Geordie Greep’s ever sharper wit anchors his lyrical vignettes clearly in the realm of the absurd. Each disreputable character is larger than life, so ridiculous that there’s a level of real detachment to the sci-fi war criminals and cold-blooded murderers who haunt the grooves of Hellfire.

Of course, the vast majority of songs on Hellfire will be familiar to fans of the early art-rock band. Black Midi spent most of the tour for their latest album Cavalcade testing these songs on the road, bringing the ideas to fruition. Hellfire can be seen as a refinement of the musical seas crossed last year.

Hellfire is the very logical sequel to their second disc, a companion piece; the “extraterrestrials” Cavalcadeit’s ‘Alien’. The new marriage of jazz-fusion, progressive rock and mathematical rock remains, but is delivered throughout Hellfire with emphasis and mania.

Perhaps the most noticeable change here is to Geordie Greep’s writing style. His narratives moved from often abstract lyrical landscapes to first-person tales of doom. He referenced writers like Thomas Bernhardt, Samuel Beckett and Isaac Bashevis Singer as his main influences on this cycle of albums. The ridiculous subject matter is often associated with the leader’s signature goblin-mode delivery, his austere voice amid the musical chaos, making his short stories all the more singular.

This is particularly evident on lead single “Welcome to Hell,” a visceral evocation of Tristan Bongo, a frontline soldier suffering from PTSD, barked from the perspective of his unsympathetic commander. “Damn crybaby, staining this street,” yells Greep, channeling a kind of dystopian Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: “Lucky I’m not shooting you on the spot… we don’t need men like you!”

Satan himself makes an appearance in “Dangerous Liaisons”, as “the Red King” ambushes a reluctant hitman as he reads about his dirty deeds (done on the cheap) in the evening paper. Meanwhile, “Sugar/Tzu” is a nonsensical killer ballad set in the year 2163 (“February 31st”) in a fight dubbed “the heavyweight showdown of the century.” Greep’s character, a dwarf onlooker at ringside, shoots one of the fighters in the back, allowing his favorite to be crowned champion, becoming “the youngest tabloid memory stickler”. A true one-track spectacle, Greep delivers it in a reptilian croon over frenetic Frippian noodles and ravishing saxophone crescendos from deep within Kaidi ‘Casanova’ Akinnibi’s lungs. Music as delirious as it is brilliant.

“The Race Is About To Begin,” the gas-guzzling masterclass that opens Side 2 is perhaps Greep’s boldest effort – not as a lyricist per se, but as a leader and as a singer. Muscular Shellac riffs and scatter percussion give way to a monstrous section of stream-of-consciousness sprechstimme, in which Greep holds his breath for 108 seconds of psychedelic, claustrophobic commentary.

Throughout, the band matches the Greep frontman’s antics and blow-for-blow lyrical punches. Much has been written about the virtuoso qualities of these musicians, but it’s the chemistry that really elevates the talent to brilliance. Bassist Cameron Picton adorns cannibalistic brawler ‘Eat Men Eat’ and slide guitar crawler ‘Still’ with his own lyrical mutations, while the interplay of Akinnibi’s elephantine sax hoots and Morgan Simpson’s thundering percussion gives the record his best musical crescendos in the most intoxicating moments of ‘Sun/Tzu’ and the country-embracing jazz-fusion number ‘Still’.

However, the best moments of Hellfire come when the band gets into a stomping, sly groove – when Black Midi hits ESG’s heavy leg with the grimacing aesthetic of Carny-Bad Seeds era. Seth ‘Shank’ Evans – the key player, who alongside Akinnibi joined the touring roster around the time of Cavalcade – leads them with serious piano strokes. Notably appearing on “Hellfire” and “27 Questions,” stomps that give the music a vaudevillian quality, a dark theatricality as the band gallops through two of the silliest cuts. The latter, perhaps, a real highlight of the album as the band sandwiches a delicate, luscious passage of playful piano and whimsical crooning between two towering sections of this grotesque stomp.

The call of Hellfire is that there are so many things to do. Dotted with alluring antagonists, absurd anti-heroes and an up-to-date byronic narrator, it’s a joy to find yourself lost in the Grand Guignol of the London group’s latest opus. Each Greep pens track is a tilted vignette, an obscure and compelling short story – if Hellfire being the modern depiction of eternal damnation, it certainly retains the absurdity it has had for all time. But perhaps most important, musically, Hellfire is a virtuous maelstrom, a demonstration of what this band can do when let loose. It’s not just about the skronking US Maple guitars, the cathartic Aylerisms of saxophone breakdowns or the sheer mania of the best rhythm section operating in the world today. It’s also the softest touches: slide guitar caresses and piano trills that color the album’s quieter moments – too often the devil is in the details.


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