Over the course of three albums in as many years the prog/math/avante rock band Black Midi have gone to great measures to make densely-layered and technically jaw-dropping albums that the simple passerby’s frontal lobe would melt from after listening. This isn’t the kind of rock music you put on for a chill session. The UK band’s sound is that of meticulous chaos that changes tempo and mood on a dime. Touches of prog rock DNA bop around in these songs; King Crimson, ELP, Mothers Of Invention, and other elements I don’t think I’d ever quite put my finger on make up the migraine-inducing proficiency of Black Midi’s sound world.
The latest album from the trio that was once a quartet titled Hellfire is the oddest and most far out one yet. Hellfire sounds like a prog rock Mr. Bungle, meaning fasten your seatbelt. You’re in for a ride.
This is what you need to know before entering Black Midi territory. If you like music that not only challenges you but berates you because you’re probably not smart enough to “get it”, then I’d say proceed with Hellfire. If not, just stick with those TV On The Radio and Animals As Leaders albums you’ve got collecting dust in your collection. They’re far more upfront. That’s not to say the Black Midi guys can’t make something you can dig your teeth into.
“Still” is a pleasant shot of melodic chaos. It’s something you can find a nugget of human emoting to grab onto. There’s the proggy proficiency, but there’s also emotional heft that touches on Meddle-era Floyd. “Dangerous Liaisons” starts out with touches of cabaret before tearing apart at the seams in proper post-punk style. Moments like these makes me think these Black Midi fellas might have gone through a Captain Beefheart phase. And with “The Defence”, maybe even Frank Sinatra.
Besides a couple moments of sonic assault reprieve, this album is busy and buzzing like a hornet looking for fresh flesh to stab. “Sugar/Tzu”, “The Race Is About To Begin”, and “27 Questions” sound like flipping through the radio dial looking for something that’s familiar. Styles, voices, melodies flying by in a flurry of static and impatience. “Eat Men Eat” has the confidence to somehow combine King Crimson, Blur, and the Beta Band and do it well.
Hellfire is for the musical adventurer. It’s not for the faint of heart or ear. Black Midi are technical music wizards and have the kinds of minds that seem to burn with a drive to push beyond what came before. It’s admirable, though sometimes it’s cool to stay with one idea for a minute or two as well. Sometimes, anyways.