War, illness, homicide, exploitation, sleaze, cynicism, callousness. Humanity isn’t precisely humane within the songs on “Hellfire,” the caustic, exhilarating third album — a masterpiece — by the English band black midi.
Each track on “Hellfire” is a whirlwind of virtuosity and construction, an idiom-hopping decathlon of meter shifts, barbed harmonies and preparations that may veer anyplace at any second. The lyrics current an assortment of fractured narrative methods that includes largely unsavory characters participating in lethal sins like lust, greed, satisfaction and gluttony. The songs’ protagonists embody killers, brutal army commanders and a performer whose final present is his personal demise. There’s additionally some grim philosophizing, just like the strains Geordie Greep rattles off in “Hellfire,” which opens the album: “No such thing as luck/Only chance and rot, inevitable loss.”
But the songs don’t lament. They bristle.
The members of black midi, all of their early 20s — Greep and Cameron Picton, taking part in guitars and plenty of different assorted devices, and the indefatigable drummer Morgan Simpson — met at the BRIT School, England’s celebrated performing-arts highschool. From the start, the band has flaunted its technical mastery and omnivorous listening, and its tastes embody prog-rock, post-punk, pop, funk, jazz, modern classical music, cabaret, electronics, flamenco, noise and extra.
Most black midi songs, previous and new, are as frenetically choreographed because the climactic scenes of a martial-arts extravaganza. Speed, precision, complexity and sudden change have at all times been at the band’s fingertips, which may transfer extremely quick. And whereas the musical and verbal constructions are meticulously cerebral, the impact is jolting and visceral.
“Schlagenheim,” black midi’s 2019 debut album — when it was a quartet together with the guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin — was puristically recorded by the band members alone. But with the album “Cavalcade” in 2021, and much more so on “Hellfire,” black midi has expanded and orchestrated its songs. The contrasts of blitz and delicacy are even larger, as daintily organized string sections or screaming winds and brass seem and vanish at will.
Even of their occasional quiet moments, the songs on “Hellfire” have a white-knuckle momentum. This album totally surfaces Simpson’s outstanding drumming, at all times at the service of the composition: crisp cymbal faucets and surging across-the-kit rolls, high-speed fusillades and cymbal whispers, snappy marching-band snare drum, patiently repeated funk or Latin beats that out of the blue explode. This time round, black midi’s music usually strikes so quick that Greep doesn’t hassle with melody. Many of his vocals arrive spoken, working as much as an auctioneer’s hyperspeed in songs like “The Race Is About to Begin,” which isn’t a lot rapped as spewed.
A sardonic, deeply British gallows humor infuses the songs, together with the conviction that no state of affairs or construction is simply too convoluted. “The Defence” is the rationalizations of a smug brothel proprietor — “My girls are destined for hell or so says our priest/But find me a Christian who spends as much time on their knees” — delivered as one thing like a big-band present tune from a classic Hollywood musical.
In “Dangerous Liaisons,” a farmhand turns into a employed killer who realizes that the employer who stiffs him is Satan; the music is a jazzy lilt that strikes out and in of waltz time and different, a lot trickier meters, finally swarmed by saxophone and brass earlier than Greep lastly barks “Futile regret!”
As if the songs don’t present sufficient puzzles, black midi previewed the album with a video for “Welcome to Hell” — a gnashing, snarling, tempo-shifting chronicle of a hapless soldier’s shore go away — that had viewers deciphering a cryptic graphic alphabet.
With “Hellfire,” black midi envisions a decadent, collapsing, zero-sum tradition, a warfare of all towards all. The music — brainy, hyperactive, overloaded, bitterly absurd — is a ferocious counterattack.