I was first introduced to black midi the same way I’m sure a lot of people were – reading a review of their debut studio album, Schlagenheim, back in 2019. They were the hot new band at that point, and while I enjoyed the record (and their live show), the cynic inside me assumed this would be another flash-in-the-pan act that put out one great record only to crumble under the pressure of follow-ups and an intense touring schedule.
Boy, was I wrong.
After the critical and popular praise of Schlagenheim, the band went through an extended period on the road, touring both the US as well as closer to home (London) multiple times. At this point, founding member Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin announced a hiatus from the band, taking some time to focus on his mental health. This left the band as a trio – Morgan Simpson on drums, Geordie Greep and Cameron Picton sharing duties on vocals, guitars, bass, and synths. You could understand if, at this point, the band decided to take a little time off – coming off a stellar first album, a solid 18 months of nonstop touring, but no. With Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s blessing, they trudged on – releasing another very well-received record in 2021 titled Cavalcade, along with a covers EP (including takes on King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and…..Taylor Swift?).
Now, over a year later, we now have the third record from black midi – Hellfire. The album is a cacophony of sounds and influences from start to finish; just under 40 minutes of mostly break-neck drumming, avant poetry for lyrics, and oddly catchy yet angular guitar lines.
Some tracks like “Sugar/Tzu” or “The Race Is About To Begin” sound like Frank Zappa conducting a big band orchestra hopped up on speed, partially due to Geordie Greep’s manic, almost scatting-like vocals. “Eat Men Eat” is backboned by a krautrock riff that sounds like it could be on a Natural Information Society recording. There are, however, some truly beautiful moments – such as the track “Still”, which has a Jim O’Rourke feel to it and a blissful, nature recordings-backed outro.
The immaculate musicianship stands out during the entire record, as well as the general…oddity. This record took me a handful of listens to really appreciate, and even now after ~10 listens I’m discovering new nooks and crannies to this madhouse of an album.