At the centre of Hellfire, the third album from UK three-piece Black Midi, you’ll find neither punishment, nor suffering, nor eternal damnation. “Still,” the album’s centrepiece, begins as an acoustic piece. It’s pretty, unexpectedly so. And yet the straightforwardness makes it the first true surprise on an album of revelations.
At times Hellfire resembles more of a free-jazz record than the post-punk you might expect. Not to say they’re necessarily a post-punk band, but rather that anything can and should be expected from these experimentalists. Once it tires of being pretty, “Still” melts away into a glitchy miscellany of clipping and static, something that sounds like dial-up internet. Then it comes full circle, playing out its dying moments in minimalist strumming and crooning, eating its own tail in a continuous cycle of brutality and vulnerability. This oscillation of beauty and ugliness, logic and unreason defines the album. Allusions are thrown at the listener at a dizzying pace — to wit: the following track, “Half Time,” is a 27-second reference to Radio Raheem, the menacing boombox carrying symbol of cultural turmoil in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. The penultimate track feels like a Frank Sinatra tribute. And album closer, “27 Questions,” feels like a dystopian showtune. Hellfire is, to say the least, audacious. It would be tedious, too, if it weren’t so damn exciting.
Having established themselves as the most ambitious band in the world a few albums back, they continue to prove they aren’t joking around with Hellfire. Black Midi don’t make standardized music, but instead break it down and warp it into something else entirely. In the wake of their unrelenting debut Schlagenheim and combustible sophomore effort Cavalcade, it would seem they’re simply incapable of regressing to the mean. Like those albums, Hellfire is unlike anything you’ve ever heard.