black midi on “Hellfire” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, April 19th, 2024  

black midi on “Hellfire”

Damned If You Do

Jul 24, 2023 Photography by Atiba Jefferson Issue #71 - Weyes Blood and Black Belt Eagle Scout
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In the summer of 2018, when live clips started circulating of an impossibly young London quartet performing unimaginably complicated arrangements with an equally unimaginable precision, they looked more like a viral marketing deepfake than a real band. Playing with the sort of ferocious precision and audacious swagger that suggested they had either started jamming together as toddlers or had found a cheat code around the supposed 10,000 hours a band needs to fully hone their craft, guitarist/vocalist Geordie Greep, bassist/vocalist Cameron Picton, guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, and drummer Morgan Simpson were, in fact, very real teenagers. A few months later, when black midi appeared for a KEXP session in Reykjavik to debut a handful of songs that would soon appear on their full-length debut, Schlagenheim, they had honed a brand of calamitous post-everything guitar rock that was more-or-less their own. If they were this good when they could barely shave, how good would they be after they had written a couple dozen songs and toured the world a few times?

Four years later, the answer was Hellfire, the band’s musically unclassifiable, thematically dense third full-length release. A day after a festival gig in Hungary, the trio of Greep, Picton, and Simpson seem as synchronized in conversation as they do on record, sharing inside jokes and finishing each other’s sentences. Greep, peering through horn rim glasses from under a baseball cap pulled low, is as understated in conversation as he is manic on stage, eager to poke holes in any obvious narratives that might have grown up around Hellfire.

No, they didn’t set out to make the sort of eclectic, shape-shifting album that would verify their growth as songwriters, he says. If anything, Hellfire is a continuation of Cavalcade, the band’s risk-taking 2021 release. No, this album’s dark tone wasn’t conjured from the disruption and despair of the pandemic; in fact, the band benefitted from the imposed isolation by having time to focus solely on their craft. No, Greep wasn’t commenting on contemporary events by creating a world of morally dubious characters, from the pipsqueak boxing fan who fatally shoots a fighter as he’s making his way to the ring (“Sugar/Tzu”) to Tristan Bongo, the conscripted soldier whose addiction to betting on horse races (apparently) inspires him to inject his favorite contender with performance-enhancing drugs. Greep’s goal was “to have nothing insightful to say about anything socially or politically,” he admits. “It was more about making things that were entertaining, something that just exists for its own sake rather than to comment on anything that’s going on in the real world.”

But make no mistake, Hellfire is a work of real world ambition, both musically and conceptually, a disorienting epic that gets much of its mileage out of constantly wriggling away before you can anticipate its next swerve. Where black midi once seemed destined to push so far into music theory that their arrangements would inevitably dissolve into math equations, they have accomplished something far more difficult. They have become deft songwriters, able to transition from freak-out guitar eruptions to lush pastoral prog suites and reflective ballads, doing it all with a sense of humor that is almost always lost when such complexity is present. Though they’ve maintained everything that made them stand out in the first place, this is a very different black midi than the kids in those fan-recorded videos from 2018.

“Obviously, you’re talking about the time period between 19 and 23 or even since when we started the band at 17 or 18,” Picton explains. “You almost become a different person in that time period anyway. So it’s inevitable, especially when you have a voracious appetite to listen to as much music as possible, you’ll end up exposing yourself to as much as you can, whether that’s music, books, film, theater.”

Picton doubtlessly draws on all of the above in “Eat Men Eat,” his tale of diamond mine workers who conspire to detonate their workplace to stop a deranged captain who aims to poison his workers and extract their stomach acids to make wine. As much as they get compared to the pioneering ’70s prog rockers and ’90s post-rock guitar bands, the band’s use of dark humor and absurd stylistic excess puts them more in the tradition of Frank Zappa, an artist Greep singles out as a particular hero. Nowhere is that influence more apparent than on “Welcome to Hell,” the album’s genre-jumping account of the aforementioned Tristan Bongo heading out on shore leave. Part “Bohemian Rhapsody,” part “Paranoid Android,” the track sounds like what it is, several unconnected song ideas that the band figured out how to graft together into something that encapsulates everything the band had done to that point, while pointing to what they could do in the future.

“At the time, I thought it sounded like some Funkadelic shit, man,” Simpson says with a mischievous laugh. “I was listening to a lot of that at the time, and I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah! This is sick. A new direction for black midi.’ I was stoked. My inspiration for that shit, especially for the recording, is all that good Sly and the Family Stone. Great beats but with a rock vibe in it, like Sly, Funkadelic, Parliament—just all that good stuff. I hope that comes through.”

As Simpson speaks, Greep and Picton nod along in unison. While they are mature beyond their years as musicians, the one place black midi’s youth asserts itself is in how utterly unjaded they are when speculating on what they still might create. Greep mentions King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard as a particular inspiration—a band that plays arenas, runs their own label, and releases as many albums per year as they want. Perhaps black midi, too, will one day only be limited by the number of hours in the day.

“We’re young bucks, so we’re more easily swayed into industry decisions and doing things in this way and not that way,” Greep concludes. “But that’s the cool thing about this whole thing that we’re doing—we’re still young as hell, relatively. We still have, on the upper end, maybe 50 or 60 years to be fully happy with what we’ve done. There’s so much time to figure out how best to do it,” he says, pausing for a moment as if the whole future just unfolded in front of him. “It’s good fun.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 71 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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