Album Review: black midi – Hellfire

[Rough Trade; 2022]

The first time I saw Hell was in Ridley Scott’s Legend. I can’t recall how old I was, maybe six? Seven? Likely too young, but what is the right age to be confronted with art or almost religious awe? Anyways: I deeply recall the unbridled fascination I had once Tim Curry stepped on screen as the Lord of Darkness, situated in a labyrinthine fortress made up of browns and black. It’s all very goth, and I will not argue with anyone saying black-clad Mia Sara likely left bit of an imprint on my young mind.

But what’s more important is that this depiction of Hell as a castle filled with possibilities and promises is the one I unconsciously compare every other depiction to. If Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, then in Hell, everything ever happens, all at once. Granted, I am not catholic, so my understanding of Hell is more fashioned after the somewhat more occult idea of Hell as a place people need more so than a place they are constrained to. As put forth in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Hell seems to be a place people feel they ought to reside in, rather than one sinners are damned to for eternity.

So in a way, Hell is in our inner sphere: it’s something we make of ourselves, for ourselves. Think about it: Milton wrote Paradise Lost, Hieronymus Bosch painted the tryptich, Blizzard coded Diablo. All these visions are ultimately our own, all of them distinct, reconfiguring ideas reflecting on the images that lie within the possibilities our fears frame into existence. What we desire and what gives us terror are often two sides of the same coin. Hell, supposedly a realm of demons and fallen angels, is at its heart undeniably human. And in an era marked by secularism and atheism, where science has become a religion itself, the archaic idea of the devil has become transformed.

Which is why it’s so funny that black midi cite two satirical interpretations of Hell as influences: Robot Hell in Futurama and Homer’s torture in The Simpsons. Those two render Hell’s tortures as somewhat ironic, including a memorable musical number and Homer’s torment being his ultimate wish fulfilment. The Gen-X sarcasm perfectly aligns itself with black midi’s daredevil shitposting attitude. They aren’t outright trolls, but they have more in common with Frank Zappa and Mark E. Smith than Robert Fripp and Johnny Rotten, satirizing the circus of the music business and creating a wholly unique anti-aesthetic.

This is the band that brings obscure instruments on stage, just so they can play a military salute for their broken instruments, or just casually shift into a ridiculous cover of Axel F’s Beverley Hills Cop theme, or whatever else they feel like doing. Dropping a concept album about Hell indicates they will bring their unique perspective and aesthetic to a realm meant to be confined within deadly serious, grim moralism, allowing the opportunity of something truly poignant and insightful regarding our human condition. Also: funny! Pasolini’s vision of Hell on Earth as seen in “Salo” this likely won’t be. Or, will it?

There are actual parallels. Hellfire is, in parts, a somewhat political record. It starts on a manic vaudevillian existentialist monologue, in which Geordie Greep slashes himself through the sinister implications of the inevitability of death, and ends with an almost living corpse singing about the follies of our struggles on Earth: “In Heaven, do the morals of Earth still stand? / Or can I bridge the gap twixt beast and man? / Is there such a thing as a universal truth? / Any lost secret to eternal youth? / Do nuns fornicate? / And do scientists pray? / Is a sin committed every moment of every day?” It’s almost Python-esque, but darker and violent in its body horror.

Second track “Sugar/Tzu” has a young man assassinate a legendary fighter, finding himself in prison, scoring letters by widows that read of the slaughtering in tabloids, feeding off his own ego: “Sun Sugar came, wouldn’t be shit without me / The youngest executioner in tabloid memory”. “Dangerous Liaisons”, meanwhile, retells a similar story as Faustian bargain, where a farmhand agrees to murder a gangster for money, but, unable to find the right man, settles on a random stranger. As he reads of the killing in the paper, the truth of the matter reveals itself: “A circle opened from the black and white picture, and my search for that face was complete / He climbed out the page and shed his skin, revealing the Red King / This was no mafioso, this was Satan himself!”

In those two songs lies the band’s own aversion for notoriety, revealing the narcissism of public recognition and the ultimate price for giving up the anonymity of everyday life via (moral) transgressions. One murderer wants to see his name in the papers, the other desires to stay out of them, but, ultimately, the written word encased both in their destiny equally.

“Eat Men Eat” is a delirious, flamenco infused anti-capitalist nightmare, where two men encounter the demonic owner of a mine that harvests the poisoned stomach acid of his workers to sell as wine. The two protagonists – who are, interestingly, somewhat queer-coded – finally manage to burn the place down and escape with their lives as the mine’s Captain hurls the F-word at them: “But we kept running, turned our backs on old Hell / With wine in our hearts, hailed as saviours of new!”. There’s hints of cult-classic horror film Ravenous here, with its own ominous captain, cave and consumption, but it carves its own niche thanks to vocalist Cameron Picton’s emotional delivery and poetic imagery worthy of a page in Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

It’s easy to deduce the band’s point: Hell finds itself in systems and dependencies. Those with power will go to any length to exploit those below them, and greed, that has infected the minds of those most in need or without direction, becomes a lighthouse of doom. “Welcome to Hell” extends this to the machinations of war recruitment, aligning itself with the pessimism of Jacques Brel’s “Au Suivant” (famously performed as “Next” by Scott Walker) when it presents the promises of no-strings-attached-nightlife to a Private Tristan Bongo: there’s no obligations or consequences for those signed up for death – until they do not die. After the physical exertion of hedonism follows society’s judgement: “Shivering fuck, don’t stain this street / Lucky I don’t shoot you on the spot / Our bullets were made for men like you / The impotent idiots God forgot”.

Even though Greep describes his protagonists as “scumbags”, it’s clear that the “old world follies” within those songs could just as well be tied to our current world. The war mentioned in “27 Questions” could be World War 2, but just as well number 3 – when he mentions “back in late ’43”, it might well have a 20 in front of it. The setting of the old fool stepping out of his coffin and tossing his wrinkled body around to gain some sort of self-fulfilled importance is rendered in a derelict theatre, but it could just as well be within our smartphone’s social media.

Hell is other people, but these figures are all enslaved by greater evils, fighting within the constraints and parameters of societal oppression. “The Defence” clears this up, as the narrator’s brothel might well be the army, the mine, the theatre. It’s all about the exchange of money, the promises to fools, the conductor who defends himself: “A brothel is a business no different than a bank / As safe and as formal and sanitary / My girls all destined for Hell / Or so says our priest / But find me a Christian / Who spends as much time on their knees.”

It’s this struggle depicted in the lyrical side of the project which complements black midi’s overall aesthetic and musical concept on Hellfire. Enshrined within a typically, deliciously abhorrent cover art that seems to be a combination of LSD nightmare, artificial intelligence image generation and black metal apocalypse, the band breaks down genre barriers to meld and mold, fuse and form styles with no conception of bad taste or sacrilege. All this jazz fusion, prog rock and post-punk, all the operatic classicism and film soundtrack dramaturgy spins and swirls like the tunes in Roadrunner cartoons. This is body music, funk-infused and ready for the mosh pit: metal for Mickey Mouse! Critics will revert back to prog rock comparisons, but therein they will miss the sheer breath of freshness and youth these songs have to offer.

Yes: Hellfire is deeply British music! Similarly to David Bowie’s Outside, it reconfigures American genre aesthetics into the apocalyptic context of the class-based structure of the United Kingdom. The working class and the art school blend to show the characters called condemned as merely extras of a sporting event.

This is why anything goes, such as the occasional country and folk leanings of the Beatles-esque “Still”, which comes out of total left field. Possibly a continuation to “Eat Men Eat”, the somewhat queer-coded and (mostly) quiet ballad remains uncharacteristically heavenly for this project, ruminating on the loneliness of missed chances – but only for a few minutes, before the band itself breaks the spell with the introduction of a radio announcer: “That was “8 Weeks in May” by the Orange Tree Boys! Keep that dial locked to 66.6 Hellfire, with yours truly, Radio Rahim!”, just before the band dives into its ultimate statement and climax of the record.

“The Race is about to Begin” is an insane whirlwind of images and names, tying the various characters of the songs together, introducing some new ones, hinting at Twin Peaks (“The log cabin’s silent”) and referencing the band’s debut album and “Hogwash and Balderdash” off Cavalcade. It’s filled with brilliant poetry, the drums and bass galloping any which way alongside Greep’s ramblings. My favourite depraved couplet: “I forget in which cups I’ve pissed / From which I can still drink.” It’s brilliant stuff, which Greep delivers in the staccato of a sport commentator, finally condensing the entire project in one line: “The race was ran – someone lost, someone won. I came and I stayed and the same ever since!”

Life as one mad sporting challenge of us watching the horses run, shouting and squealing, anxious who will have gotten it right, who wins the prize. This is Hell: to hope, pray, wager, shout at some mad beasts in the hope they are our salvation, forcing ourselves into a stasis dominated by the transformation of our hopes and dreams to greed. Every heist collapses because of that one guy who needs some more, to prove himself and his ego. In the end, we all stumble towards our unreachable dream, collapsing but thinking it is within our reach.

That’s why it’s likely Hellfire will shoot over some people’s heads: it’s three Brit kids serenading the American Dream, cremating the promises of fame, glory and luxury. A melting pot that declares the end of genre, the end of civility, unmasking the stories we’ve been told as lies, orating the races we follow like the blind. Some characters cannot escape Hell, because they entomb themselves in false promises – those who escape do so because they dare go against what they are told. It reminds me of when I met Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar – someone who’s inspired quite a few interpretations of Lucifer indeed – and told him of the love my best friend and I share for the undervalued, often hated, Never Let Me Down. Alomar paused and slowly responded: “At the beginning of the race, we will all pick our horses, and put our money on the one we believe in. But you’ll only know which one wins in the end.” Then he laughed, heartily, shook my hand and walked away.