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(Credit: Daniel Topete / Press)

Music

Black Midi intrigue and infuriate in equal measure on 'Hellfire'

Black Midi - 'Hellfire'
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There’s something admirable about doubling down. Black Midi are a band that is theoretically easy to love: their completely unique in terms of their sound, they have critical acclaim that’s virtually unmatched in modern music, and they’ve accrued a reputation for being uncompromising. That’s all well and good, but those are elements that you can take in without, conveniently enough, having to listen to the music.

Once you do listen to the music, specifically the band’s newest album Hellfire, it’s up to you whether you like it or not. If you happen to be a fan of impossible-to-follow concepts, insanely dense arrangements, frenetic changes in speed, non-existent keys, and endless explorations of genres, then Hellfire will be right up your alley. If you have trepidations about any of those concepts, this is your cue to take a pass.

The important thing is that Black Midi are doing all of this intentionally. In an effort to force traditional rock music to move forward, the now-trio have painstakingly crafted an album full of screams, dreams, dread, death, and jazz. Mostly jazz. There’s an episode of Parks and Recreation where Leslie Knope visits a public radio station and participates in a segment called ‘Jazz + Jazz = Jazz’ that involves playing two jazz records on top of each other at the same time. Black Midi, with a calculated and concise approach, have recreated that same mania with complete seriousness.

One of the problems is that Hellfire gives away all of its interesting nuts and bolts in its first three real tracks. After the brief introductory track ‘Hellfire’, the one-two-three punch of ‘Sugar/Tzu’, ‘Eat Men Eat’, and ‘Welcome to Hell’ takes us through a rollercoaster that includes boxing matches, potential cannibalism, blaring horns, and nightmarish imagery. It’s intense and not particularly fun, but at least it’s interesting. Why, then, do the band have to spin their wheels for another six tracks?

No amount of deliberate intention can keep Hellfire from being a complete mess. In fact, it’s when Black Midi attempts to corral the insanity that the album becomes its least interesting: the last two minutes of ‘The Race Is About to Begin’, the beginning of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, and the majority of ‘Still’ being the major examples. The whiplash changes in tempos and styles are so intense that you begin to crave the madness and lose focus on the calmer sections.

Black Midi get eternal respect for the technical skill that it takes to write, organise, and perform this music. Since their goal was to bring their listeners on a trip through an especially nightmarish version of Hell, I can confidently say that they’ve accomplished that goal. That doesn’t mean I could recommend Hellfire to most people. I can’t imagine what mood you would have to be in to casually put on Hellfire – it’s a commitment and a half to devote yourself to this experience.

By the end, you’re exhausted, confused, and more than likely to have a splitting headache. The quasi-Spanish/Hawaiian bliss of ‘The Defense’ is hardly a balm for what just transpired. It’s a fake-out anyway: the loopy and discordant ’27 Questions’ still remains before this journey is truly complete.

Hellfire will surely appeal to the same people who listen to Captain Beefheart and the most extremely undigestible Frank Zappa for fun. That’s still a rare cult, one that is sure to embrace Black Midi with open arms now that they’ve fully devoted themselves to the chaotic form of this particular brand of experimental jazz-rock.

All the craziness on Hellfire gets redundant at the halfway mark, and if you’re not especially attuned to the band’s unique style, then you’re pretty much shit out of luck when it comes to finding something to latch onto. There’s nothing here for anyone who is on the fence or, god forbid, a bit averse to frantic instability. That exclusiveness will certainly endear Black Midi to their devoted fans, but Hellfire is most assuredly not for anyone else.