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Album Review: black midi - 'Hellfire'

Updated: May 3, 2023

When I was five, my neighborhood friend, Chris, told me that 666 was the devil’s number. I ran and hid behind the living room couch at his house. His mom tried to coax me out, but I was too afraid to even peek out from behind it. I knew that if I looked something worse than I had ever seen was going to get me and drag me away. As I got older, horror movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street taught me how to be a teenager, but I could never watch Hellraiser or The Gate as if acknowledging hell would open a portal in my head that I would never be able to close.

I wish I could say I outgrew that uncomfortable feeling, that our culture and world desensitized me to the devil and hell concept. However, the idea of a forever damnation resonates in my essence and has evolved with my consciousness. No longer sulfur lakes and endless cavern infernos, hell causes confusion, clouds judgment, and makes me question reality. Think Phish’s “Shafty:”

The terrible thing about hell Is that when you’re there you can’t even tell As you move through this life you love so You could be there and not even know But you say so what I’m doing just fine The irony is that it’s all in your mind And that is why hell is so vicious and cruel But you’ll just go on an oblivious fool

I sought the new black midi album, Hellfire. “Eat Men Eat” was my early introduction to it, and I knew I had to write about its creators. They remind me of Godcaster, a Philly/Brooklyn band that sounds like a Frankstein collection of some of my favorite bands during their early years: Phish, LCD Soundsystem, The Flaming Lips, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Primus. Their sound and movements are ADHD and seem to be here, then there, and then over there, but I can follow it. black midi’s music is made from their unique blend of inspiration, but they are similar in concept.

black midi has been described as experimental rock, noise rock, and, my favorite, math rock. They piece together conflicting styles and make it work. Start with track one, “Hellfire,” off the new LP, and you can hear it immediately. There are elements of military propaganda, old Hollywood soundtracks, burlesque, and Saturday morning cartoons. It is doing exactly what an opening track should do, setting a mood. It is intense and unsettling, an organized cacophony.

Let it roll into “Sugar/Tzu.” It starts with a sports announcer, and then . . . tell me, were you expecting that? That calm, easy guitar, horn, and vocals. Short-lived but impactful. Then the build and . . . another calm. Big Band Jazz? Back and forth, like my childhood nightmares. I want to settle into a singular emotion, but it will not happen in Hellfire.

I can only imagine dancing to “Welcome To Hell” at a concert in my twenties. What kind of pit would that be? How many elbows and shoulders would I take to the face?

The longest song on the album is “The Race Is About To Begin,” at 7 minutes and fifteen seconds. Yet, there are so many changes that they make the song feel even longer. Like the state of Washington, it has almost every climate the world has to offer packed into its borders. It is epic and leads into my favorite song on Hellfire, “Dangerous Liaisons.”

During my first listen, I was working on a personal essay about my struggles in life and how music helps me deal with them. However, I was still taking notes. So, instead of writing about the eighth song on Hellfire, I’m just going to share my last note on it.

This is a fucking great song

In hindsight, I wrote that note because Hellfire was winning me over. Through ten songs, it does not get lost in the “experimental rock,” nor does it let up. Full of heavy content, complicated rhythms, and full sound, I realize this Hellfire is not about that fictional underground world but the heat of the world today. It is the overwhelming anxiety I feel being alive. When religion has lost its way and purpose. When greed is a trait covenanted over kindness. And when the deaths of millions are overlooked because it negatively affects commerce. War, military conflict, and government are Hell. It is no longer an unknown entity that can come out of nowhere to get me. Hell is a decision. black midi, thank you for the lesson.

Final Thought: How the hell can they perform this at a concert? The lyrics, changes, timing. It would all be too much for me to memorize. I have to see them whenever they come around.

Final Thought, part 2: Another note from my initial listen: All of the changes, directions, and sounds, full, without being too much. Orchestrated madness. I think that’s pretty talented.

Favorite Songs: “Eat Men Eat,” “Still,” and “Dangerous Liaisons”

Rating - 5/5 (Yes, this is why I sought out this album.)

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