Beandon’s Musical Corner: ‘Hellfire’ by black midi

Oct. 11, 2022, 11:04 p.m.

Welcome to Beandon’s Musical Corner, the only place on campus for in-depth, exhaustive reviews of the latest releases in rock, jazz, experimental…and pretty much everything else. Brandon Rupp (also known by his mononymous musical title “beandon,” under which he releases music and DJs as KZSU’s Student Music Director) explores a new title and gives unfiltered feedback, regardless of the genre. Feel free to send him music; he’d love to take a listen!

Black Midi’s meteoric rise to fame seems all the stranger when you take a moment to consider their quasi-spoken-word, lounge lizard vocals, 180bpm free jazz drumming, angular guitar riffs and violently strummed bass chords.

Black Midi is a band almost completely unconcerned with fame (as their passive stage “presence” would imply) though it seems to have fallen directly into their laps. They have hundreds of thousands of monthly listeners on Spotify and charting positions on the Billboard Top 200, UK Albums chart, and half a dozen other countries. With sold-out concert tours around the United States and Europe, as well as universal critical acclaim, they have undoubtedly carved a sizable niche in today’s music climate.

Their latest outing, “Hellfire”, is much of the same as what one has come to expect from the band — but with the theatrics turned up to 11. With the assistance of the vaudevillian and the dramatic, Black Midi have curated their most ambitious (and skillfully crafted) album yet.

Hellfire’s primary strength comes from the band building upon the familiar mode set in last year’s “Cavalcade”: an accomplished Black Midi album in its own right. In their live shows — where, speaking from personal experience, juvenile audiences with zero concert etiquette open up the pit for even the softest of ballads — the band mixes songs from all of their albums in a way that highlights their impressive collective progression. While no tracks on their new release quite reach the highs of Cavalcade’s opener, “John L,” the band has certainly launched its overt prog sound into the stratosphere.

For example, new tracks like “Sugar/Tzu” feature a blistering tempo riff and powerful horn wailing that would fit right into their previous album. In fact, even their album art (which resulted from artist David Rudnick putting the lyrics of the album into an AI image generator) bears a striking resemblance to the dissonant visuals of Cavalcade, further serving to link these two projects together in the minds of many Black Midi fans. 

This is not to say that the album doesn’t help to distinguish itself within the band’s overall oeuvre. In the words of lead “singer” Geordie Greep (yes, that is his name), “if Cavalcade was a drama, Hellfire is like an epic action film.” The theatrical guiding concept of Hellfire is much stronger than the slapdash irreverence of Schlagenheim, their first record or the vague theme of “larger than life figures” hinted at on Cavalcade.

According to the record’s press release, we’re in Black Midi’s depiction of hell — and the album’s “morally suspect characters” act accordingly. Almost every song follows some character or unique perspective, whether it be a western featuring two lovers dealing with a homophobic mining captain on “Eat Men Eat” or the brilliant story of murder detailed in the band’s most forward-thinking composition, “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Also of note is the anti-war declaration, “Welcome to Hell,” which describes the abuse and subsequent fits of PTSD experienced by Private Tristan Bongo (a Thomas Pynchon character name if I’ve ever heard one). Bongo later returns on “The Race is About to Begin,” the longest track on the album.

I am at a loss for words in describing the vocal performance of this track: after looking it up, there are about 800 words jammed into the lyrics of this frantic and relentless composition. Straight out of the gate, the song begins with a rapid ascending guitar riff that is shortly followed by the eyebrow-raising declaration that, “Idiots are infinite / And thinking men are numbered / Don’t kid yourself / This isn’t news.”

Lyrics like this are emblematic of the dichotomy of Hellfire. Although the instrumentals are fun and bouncy, there’s a pervasive sadness to almost every lyric: twitchy, misanthropic contempt drips from Greep’s mouth with each and every character he plays. Even in character, it takes a certain cadence to properly convey the wonderfully boisterous spirit of lyrics like “Posterity will show me to be / The greatest the world has ever seen / A genius among non-entities!”

Meanwhile, bassist Cameron Picton sings two songs, bringing to the table dramatically improved vocals from the nondescript work he contributed to Cavalcade. His moving performance on the country-twanged “Still” has slowly become one of my favorite moments on the album. Speaking of the band’s rhythm section, I must celebrate the work of Morgan Simpson, my favorite drummer to come from the 21st century.

From the chugging military snare of the title track all the way to the cacophonous cymbal slams and hi-hat barks of “27 Questions,” Simpson perfectly adds his effortlessly prodigious talent to each song. After seeing this band live twice, standing right in front of him both times, I’m still not sure how his hands move so fast. He probably brushes his teeth in an irregular time signature.

It would be a disservice to stop at Simpson however, as the entire band is truly playing their finest throughout this entire record. The band’s influences are noticeable to an almost comical degree. Among them are the basslines of Primus; the guitar of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band; the songwriting of Mr. Bungle; the delivery of Talking Heads; grooves of Can, flamenco guitar, cabaret, country; and a laundry list more.

Amusingly, their ridiculously young fanbase may not be aware of the extent of all of these influences (says I, a nineteen-year-old). Some even seem to think Black Midi is the most forward-thinking and avant-garde band to exist. Still, while they proudly wear influences on their sleeve, their unique amalgamation of sounds and willingness to relentlessly experiment are welcome breaths of fresh air in my book.

Hellfire provides compelling evidence for the ever-strengthening argument that 2022 is one of the best years in contemporary music history. When an album this remarkably unique, creative, ambitious and memorable is desperately fighting for the top spot in my year-end list, it becomes quite clear how impressive the year’s output has been. Here’s to many more Black Midi albums like Hellfire in the future because they’re currently batting a heavenly 3-for-3.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Brandon Rupp '25 is a columnist for the Arts & Life section who has also written for Humor. Contact him at rupp 'at' stanford.edu to tell him how much you respect his rigid journalistic integrity (or to send him music to take a look at). He appreciates that you are reading his bio.

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