“And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell.”
So said The Consul in Malcom Lowry’s Under The Volcano, and ‘Hellfire’ finds black midi fixed on that same idea. Vocalist and guitarist Geordie Greep claims to have drawn as much from the robot hell of ‘Futurama’ as from Dante’s ‘Inferno’, hence dealing with it in a manner of such cartoon excess. Indeed, as a band EXCESS ALWAYS! is a fitting maxim, an abundance of everything.
When Black Midi first arrived they were a sharp break from the Fall/Country Teasers/Fat White Family continuum of British guitar bands – despite their occasional flirtation with cowboy hats. Instead they served up improvised skronk, the mechanised prog of King Crimson circa ‘Red’, and the pained yelps of post hardcore, while Morgan Simpson quickly earned a reputation as one of the best drummer of his generation.
When Greep fires into machine gun speech, his bizarre ticks can’t be dumped with the landfill sprechgesang crew, those sub Mark E. Smith lot banging on about soggy chips and lairy pub regulars from a 70s Britain they didn’t live through. On this new record, tracks like ‘Hellfire’ and ‘The Race is About to Begin’ find him practically rapping, while also hitting the sweet spot between auctioneer, stock broker, and sports announcer.
As told to Loud and Quiet, the curmudgeonly/absurd inner monologues of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard influenced the title track, though the album’s later line; “no king of this useless nameless non-land/no end to this nothing nonsense non-song”, also feels like a cry of impotent protest from Beckett’s ‘The Unnameable’, senseless demands made to a senseless world.
The album switches between high modernism, pulp modernism, preposterous prog, a radio show, a wrestling match, an action film, and a musical.
We also have tracks from Cameron Picton, who has grown exponentially as both singer and songwriter. ‘The Still’ sounds like Jim O’Rourke conducting a mariachi band, with swooning slide guitars and lysergic plucked strings, while ‘Eat Men Eat’ is all sooty skin and parched earth, an assent from the mines of an earthbound hell.
‘Concept’ is a very loose word here. We get recurring announcements, as on ‘Sugar/Tzu and ‘Half Time’, and each song is a soapbox exposé of some ‘scumbag’ or other, whether a brothel owner whose skewed morals are levelled at the doors of the clergy, or lead single ‘Welcome To Hell’, which sees the manic tirade of a military Sargent broken by an orchestral riff that sounds like Sabbath rescoring The Incredibles.
The embrace of post-everything maximalism by black midi is aided by additional musicians Kaidi Akinnibi and Seth Evans, not to mention the extraordinary clarity-in-chaos of producer Marta Salogni. There are unexpected time signatures, sudden upheavals, and though they can go down convoluted cul-de-sacs – or at worst approach the sneer and proficiency of Zappa or the bad end of prog – these moments are alleviated by the open acceptance of how ludicrous the whole thing is. Such virtuoustic displays can rub the wrong way, but dated punk/prog battle lines are no longer necessary.
Appreciation of the album comes down to how much you’re willing to go with all this. Like Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, ‘Hellfire’ is at once goofy and high brow. A volcanic eruption of serious silliness.
Words: Eden Tizard