REVIEW FROM ISSUE #004 VOL 2 AUGUST 2022
Subgenre labels will not save you from being sucked into the idiosyncratic, intense world of black midi; post/experimental/avant/prog/math/art + rock/punk (circle a few of these words and then run with that in terms of settling on a shared discourse). The London group has gone from weird cult internet band to weird cult internet band who tours the world. They’re a group of art school gweebens who have been surprisingly resistant to all the hang-ups of being very young, insanely talented, and revered outsiders.
Black midi’s rekkids are esoteric and complex and not for everyone, but I’m hesitant to critique the group for being overly pretentious or indulgent. There’s a silliness and flippancy at the root of their approach which you can sometimes lose sight of amidst all the jaw-dropping technique and in the weeds of their notoriously challenging compositions. If you want to levy a critique of a band being mired in their own brilliance then by all means roast the fuck out of the new Black Country, New Road rekkid, but for me at least, any cringe that comes with black midi is mostly forgiven due to their sound earnestly and successfully pushing the boundary/envelope of what a modern rock band can sound like.
Their newest rekkid ‘Hellfire’ (2022) feels to me like the final chapter of black midi’s opening suite and is their best effort to-date, completing a truly stunning run that includes ‘Schlagenheim’ (2019) and Cavalcade (2021).
I get an overwhelming Frank Zappa energy from ‘Hellfire’, there’s a spectrum-y intense attention-to-detail and bananas musicianship across the album, but the aesthetic consistently appeals to a very sort-of camp and almost tongue-in-cheek feel. They definitely share the same freak-out theatrical impulse rooted in jazz and contemporary classical music tropes as Zapp daddy. I wonder if Mothers of Invention would’ve been into math rock?
Instrumentally, this is the most extreme and far-reaching rekkid I’ve heard all year. There’s no denying that drummer Morgan Simpson is certified off his fuckng face, and there’s some fantastic percussive porn on ‘Sugar/Tzu’ and ‘Welcome to Hell’. We hear black midi explore some new flavours; a tropical, latin feel starting ‘Eat Men Eat’, and bluegrass-y slide guitar rearing it’s head on ‘Still’ and ‘The Defence’. Black midi have been in da bizness of making songs with neck-snapping transitions for many years now and stand-out track ‘Welcome to Hell’ pins free-moving kitsch cinematic builds against precise and angular chugging reprieves. Contrast is the name of the game here and I love the internal balance in many of the songs (as in the rekkid as a whole) between ‘the mosh’ and ‘the mixing desk’.
Geordie Greep’s voice dips and croons in a way that sometimes reminds of Scott Walker, sometimes like an old time-y radio announcer high on bath salts. I like that. In terms of the lyrics, I accept that I don’t have the gigabrain to fully understand what’s going on ere’ and maybe this is where I need to sit with the rekkid longer and let my Brisbane tall poppy syndrome subside. Geordie sings “idiots are infinite and thinking men are numbered” on ‘The Race Is About to Begin’ which is probably the worst part of the album as it sorta implies to me you’re an idiot if you don’t ‘get’ whatever the fuck black midi are trying to do on ‘Hellfire’. I don’t like that. In all fairness though, the songwriting here does seem a bit more direct than their previous efforts, Geordie writing more in first-person, around the consistent existential theme of ‘hell’ and being (with the help of Genius lyrics) explicit in some regards.
‘Eat Men Eat’ sees a couple of gay miners poisioned by a captain’s feast, thankfully they escape before the captain makes wine outta the fermented contents of their stomachs. Closing track ‘27 Questions’ uses the character of Freddie Frost performing his last ever show to ask a number of philosophical questions about relationships, free will, society and death. ‘Welcome to Hell’ tells the story of Private Tristan Bongo being discharged by his commander for mental struggles in-war: “Shivering fuck, don't stain this street/Lucky I don't shoot you on the spot/Our bullets were made for men like you/The impotent idiots God forgot.” On ‘The Race Is About to Begin’ we see the Tristan re-emerge at the horse races, further expanding on his declining mental state while also giving a sorta meta–commentary about previous black midi songs, saying “I came thirty years back from Salafessien, via South Schlagenheim” which is in-reference to the location on ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’ as well as their first album.
I understand that for many, black midi will sound like they’re trying to be too smart, but I’d argue across ‘Hellfire’ that’s just the double-edged nature of trying to make challenging music that’s genuinely novel and exciting. Say what you will about the thematic impenetrability of ‘Hellfire’, but there’s no denying the brilliance of the execution here and that they’ve been successful in realising their ideas. Black midi are goddamn surgeons when it comes to laying things down in the studio, and their unbelievable chops/chemistry shines through in-spite of any intellectual egoism.
The deeply layered world of black midi is accessible to me in so far as it’s visceral. When Geordie sings “you fucking faggots ain’t seen the last of me yet/I’ll have the last laugh you cunts” on ‘Eat Men Eat’ it comes with this really intense instrumental build and I can tell ya right now I’m not meditating on the deeper meaning when I hear that as much I am simply caught up in the emotional climax and use of naughty words. I hope they continue to lean more and more into fundamental archetypes and feelings, warping and parodying familiar tropes, seeking authentic expression, rather than penning increasingly cold, intellectual and calculated conceptual efforts just because that’s what’s expected of them.