Black Midi – Hellfire (Rough Trade Records) – What’s so good about black midi? In a sentence: they’re unique. Genuinely unique, so much so that comparisons and pointers have to be constructed from a basket of absurd, incongruous other bands and artistes. But let’s start with what’s there anyway: deft heaviness, chunks and slabs of not entirely obvious melody, pinned together with an easy precision. Very vocals-led, all about the story. It’s complex, constructed, massive, each song a musical number, a mini-opera, a bit sprawly but not always. It’s dense, and won’t grab you with an easily shared tune, but the tunes are there, just not that obvious. It’s an adventure, not background muzak. Pay attention to get the rewards. The melodies are shifting, slippery, leading up and down paths and into thickets, stumbling into memorable bursts.
Comparisons, then… already, described as prog, just like all those other bands that get on the radio who embrace that word – except that this time around, they really will make aficionados happy with the number of tonal shifts and underused time signatures, all that awkward stuff that is actually what that’s all about. By all accounts unfamiliar with Cardiacs, and only occasionally sounding like them – that hair-raising English weirdness, chromatics and whole-tones doubling back to hints of Danny Elfman and Zappa – it makes more sense when you know that there were members of black midi in the audience at the recent Van Der Graaf Generator gigs. And, wait for it: Burt Bacharach. A lot of Bacharach, all those under-the-hood complexities in the name of pop, that fairground waltzing, apparent convention disguising a whole lot of strangeness driving it along, paddling madly under the water.
It’s not quite like any of that, which is good, because that stuff is inimitable. It IS like that, in that they’ve nailed the whole essential package of craft/emotion/adventurousness. But with the effortlessness of a tightly bonded trio of creatives who don’t need to pour slavishly over existing works – they’ve absorbed them via many loving listens and it’s coming back out unconsciously transfigured into their own deal.
And the whole adventure is inevitably dominated by Geordie Greep’s voice – a great voice, instantly recognisable in itself, and strange and good enough to compare to, wait for it, Sinatra and Peter Hammill, a crooner with a touch of something otherworldly, cinematic. A lot of people aren’t going to like it, they’ll feel affronted by the one-offness, the theatre. I just feel relief, to hear something, anything, new in the world, a voice or a sound that stands up for itself. There’s also vocals from co-writer Cameron Picton, adding to the expanse of the widescreen vision and a calmer counterpoint in the storytelling. Drummer Morgan Simpson is already regarded as a legendary force for good. And all in their early twenties.
After two albums where black midi slowly ramped up the weird structure at the same time the Industry and is dog got wind of them and they hurtled upwards in Industry/ media attention, ‘Hellfire’ is precisely the opposite of the usual story: everything that the ignorant Industry would deem commercial death has been ramped up, the things that the exponentially exploding fanbase WANT have been ramped up, every song is a preposterous, vivid, magnificent, confusing, wilful expression. Highlights are everywhere, too many to pick out and every song seems to have one. Every song also takes some getting used to, and there’s nothing catchy to grab hold of… until there is. For a moment.
It’s true. In a world where our inboxes are clogged with a hundred draining ‘you’ll like them, they’re progressive and avant’ messages and you click on the link and it’s barely radical enough for Smooth FM, the real deal has finally landed on Planet Mainstream Press. Don’t be put off, dive in. This one is worth it. This one will be remembered… a long time. (mo)