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Album Of The Week

The Bad Place: Black Midi’s Hellfire
Cal Cashin , July 14th, 2022 08:13

Alluring antagonists, absurd anti-heroes and a byronic narrator to match, the third album from Black Midi is a righteous maelstrom, finds Cal Cashin

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

‘Tis a tradition as old as time. From the buildings that look like Toby jugs in Bosch’s hallucinogenic luminations, to the quirky myriads of torture awaiting bad automatons in Futurama’s Robot Hell, depictions of the Bad Place have been totally absurd for all of time. Depictions in the Bible are no less cartoonish, far more ludicrous 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 for ever and ever…” Pretty wild stuff.

It’s this take on Hell that seems to guide Black Midi through their third album Hellfire. It is bound by this contradiction; so evil are some of its hellish conceits, that they are simply funny. Whilst demonic horrors lurk around every corner, the ever-sharpening wit of frontman Geordie Greep anchors his lyrical vignettes clearly in the realm of the absurd. Every character of evil repute is larger-than-life, so ridiculous that there is a level of real detachment to the science fiction war criminals and cold-blooded murderers that haunt the grooves of Hellfire.

Of course, the vast majority of songs on Hellfire will be familiar to fans of the precocious art-rock group. Black Midi spent most of the tour for their last album Cavalcade road-testing these songs, making the ideas flesh. Hellfire can be seen as a refinement of the musical seas traversed last year.

Hellfire is the very logical follow-on from their second record, a companion piece; the ‘Aliens’ to Cavalcade’s ‘Alien’. The novel marriage of jazz-fusion, prog rock, and math rock remains, but is delivered throughout Hellfire with bombast and mania.

Perhaps the most notable change here is to Geordie Greep’s writing style. His narratives have evolved from oft abstract lyrical landscapes into first person tales of woe. He has referenced writers like Thomas Bernhardt, Samuel Beckett and Isaac Bashevis Singer as his primary influences on this album cycle. The ludicrous subject matter is often twinned with the frontman’s signature goblin mode delivery, his voice stark amongst musical chaos, making his short stories even more singular.

This is most vividly apparent on lead single ‘Welcome to Hell’, a visceral evocation of Tristan Bongo, a frontline soldier suffering with PTSD, barked from the perspective of his unsympathetic commanding officer. “Snivelling fuck, staining this street,” howls Greep, channelling some kinda dystopic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: “Lucky I don’t shoot you on the spot … we don’t need men like you!”

Satan himself makes an appearance on ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, as “the Red King” ambushes a reluctant contract killer whilst he’s reading about his dirty deeds (done dirt cheap) in the evening newspaper. Meanwhile, ‘Sugar/Tzu’ is an absurdist murder ballad set in 2163 (“February 31st”) at a fight dubbed the “Leadweight clash of the century”. Greep’s character, a dwarven ringside onlooker, shoots one of the fighters in the back, allowing his favourite to be crowned the champ, becoming “the youngest executioner in tabloid memory” in the process. A real spectacle of a track, Greep delivers it in a reptilian croon atop frenzied Frippian noodling and rapturous saxophone crescendos from deep within the lungs of Kaidi ‘Casanova’ Akinnibi. Music as ludicrous as it is brilliant.

‘The Race is About to Begin’, the gas guzzlin’ masterclass that opens Side 2 is perhaps Greep’s most daring effort – not as a lyricist per se, but as a frontman and as a vocalist. Muscular Shellac riffs and scattergun percussion make way for a monstrous section of stream-of-consciousness sprechstimme, wherein Greep holds his breath for 108 seconds of psychedelic and claustrophobic commentary.

Throughout, the band match Greep’s frontman antics and lyrical punches blow for blow. Much has been written of these musicians' virtuosic qualities, but it’s the chemistry that really elevates talent to brilliance. Bassist Cameron Picton adorns cannibalistic brawler ‘Eat Men Eat’ and slide guitar crawler ‘Still’ with his own lyrical mutations, whilst the interplay of Akinnibi’s elephantine sax hoots and Morgan Simpson’s tempestuous drumming gives the record its best musical crescendos in the headiest moments of ‘Sun/Tzu’ and the jazz-fusion kissed country number ‘Still’.

However, the finest moments on Hellfire come when the band get into a malignant, stomping groove – when Black Midi hit the heavy strut of ESG with the grimacing aesthetics of Carny-era Bad Seeds. Seth 'Shank' Evans – the keys player, who alongside Akinnibi joined the touring lineup around the time of Cavalcade – drives these with severe thwacks of the piano. Occurring most notably on ‘Hellfire’ and ‘27 Questions’, stomps that give the music a vaudevillian quality, a dark theatricality as the band galumph into two of the silliest cuts. The latter, perhaps, a real album high point as the band sandwich a dainty and luscious passage of playful piano and whimsical crooning between two hulking sections of this grotesque stomp.

The appeal of Hellfire is that there is simply so much to it. Littered with alluring antagonists, absurd anti-heroes and a byronic narrator to match, it’s a joy to find yourself lost in the Grand Guignol of the London group’s latest opus. Each track Greep pens is a tilted vignette, an obscure and compelling short story – if Hellfire be the modern depiction of eternal damnation, it certainly retains the absurdity that it has had for all time. But perhaps most importantly, musically, Hellfire is a righteous maelstrom, a demon-stration of what this group can do when they allow themselves to be let off the leash. It’s not just the skronking US Maple guitars, the cathartic squawking Aylerisms of the saxophone breakdowns, or the sheer mania of the best rhythm section operating in the world today. It’s also the softer touches too: caresses of slide guitar and piano trills that colour in the album’s quietest moments – the devil is all too often in the detail.