black midi: System Overload
We dive deep into black midi's third studio album Hellfire and the mythos surrounding the group's success: fire and brimstone couldn't hold them back at this point.
In 2021 black midi released a standalone single titled “Cruising” that begins like the sands of Normandy, ringing in your ears until its climax 6 minutes later when charming cartoon pangs wash ashore and gently sink your convulsions to somewhere reminiscent of a certain pineapple under the sea. The lyrics, “cruising with lovely Amapola” echo mantra-like throughout this regression from death back to childhood, not so much portraying your life flashing before your eyes but as if the gang are scoring the abortion of your soul from body as it searches for a new embryo to transplant itself into. Their new album, Hellfire, finds this embryo with its thrifted soul, snatches it by the throat, spits in its face and then — graciously — taxes 50% of its lunch money until it either pays off its student loans or cures cancer. “It’s an unfair deal” cries the embryo, “too bad” roars back frontman-slash-traveller-from-an-alternate-universe Geordie Greep in the voice of a villainous 1940s business tycoon. Because when you emerge from Hellfire you’re not in the nostalgic waters of childhood animations, but swimming in the afterbirth of a lost demon trying out different souls for size. It’s a wonderfully experimental first-person voice that floats angelically from demented character to character until its schizophrenic balthazarian side wretches forward coughing and spluttering about the moon and the stars and all that falls way, way beneath them. Man is the devil’s best weapon, and black midi are all for nuking the lot of us.
“The cure for music is music” claims Greep. While their music is a babble of contradictions, aesthetic chaos of elusive meaning amidst washes of coruscating noise, they seem to have the kindness to take the most niche of musical genres and lay a little humanity underneath them. The term “Black MIDI” refers to the moments in a piece of digital music where the notes, if displayed, are so dense that there appears to be just a mass of black noteheads. The goal of the program is to approach a computer processing failure without actually crossing that line. It’s music designed to suck you down some algorithmic rabbit hole on YouTube trying to find the perfect Billy Joel song to kill your brain and your computer to, like video game boss-level music being fed through a computer that would rather commit seppuku than let you win. It’s a brutal, beautiful wall of sound, real music transposed as autonomous electronic notes, something that the band black midi has seemed to always keep in the forefront of their imagination; saying that “we’re thinking about how to make something as thrilling as possible, how to keep the tension there always.”
“Cruising” (just as 2020’s stand-alone “Sweater”, sat in between Schlagenheim and Cavalcade) gestured towards what we could expect from Hellfire, something long, dark, transcendent — complete with the crisp, sonic contradictions that black midi are famous for. Hellfire is a riot, but it’s more Notting Hill Carnival gone wrong than the French Revolution. There is a brick going through your window, but tied to it is a map to midi’s black heart.
If looking at the first three albums as a triptych, Hellfire feels perfectly in line with “The Garden of Earthly Delights” final panel, where all delicious sins must have their swollen conclusions. Hellfire opens with a rolling procession of militaristic drums as if a Boschian marching band are crashing through the title track, as Greep sings “Always, always dust \\ Always, always, always no such thing as luck \\ Only chance and rot”, his voice pitched to the key of a malfunctioning fax machine. It’s a perfect pacesetter for the album, and Greep’s maniacal monologue is littered with muzzled allusions to a defective, impotent character who has possessed a cynical truth that the same worms that will eat your rotting corpse are going to eat his too, and yet there is so much fun to be had along the way – an idea that is laced underneath much of the album’s more theatrical and absurdist moments. German playwright Bertolt Brecht is often credited with the idea that “a theatre without beer is just a museum”, that art without something that intoxicates you is lobotomised. It’s difficult sometimes writing these articles not to over-intellectualise the art because art is not for the brain. Like a good beer, black midi’s music goes straight to my gut, and as Hellfire’s opening tracks spew forth, it’s obvious that Greep’s nonsense “the cure for music is music” means basically the same as Brecht’s quote, where the sounds that are drawn out of a narcotic throb and linger like the vertigo of a particularly shaky hangover become the very sounds that trigger memories of the night that strung you out.
I first saw black midi live last year, first where I saw them at Wide Awake’s Brockwell Park festival, then again up-close at The Windmill, the legendary South London music venue where the list of who has graced the stage seems sort of endless. Although black midi are generally indefinable, they operate within South London’s larger “post-punk” scene, a term that categorises musicians less for their similarities in sound and more for a spirit that does what all good punk art should do: disrupts. It disrupts your heartbeat as you listen to it, it disrupts your expectations of the “post-punk” scene it helped create (like Shame or BC,NR) and constantly disrupts its own system of creation, black midi now having completed a trilogy of albums that feel as dissonant from each other sonically as they do coherent in terms of quality. Live, you begin to see how this is possible, as the trio push each other (surprising each other by jumping in at different cues, for example), pushing their instruments (you need to be in-person to see truly how hard Morgan Simpson hits his fucking drums), and push their whiplash teleportation between genres, always managing to bring themselves to the brink of their limits, then slowly, slowly reel it back to something cathartic. And they do it all with a wry smile.
It’s this tension between exuberant over-abundance and release that makes Hellfire so restlessly brilliant. They have married the brutality and craziness of the first album with the sweetness and dynamics found in the quieter moments of the second, for example in the one-two-punch of “Welcome to Hell” and “Still”. The former is a part industrial, part new wave story of a man at war named Bongo who is suffering from PTSD, told from the perspective of Bongo’s commanding officer and scored by instrumentals that drag out of your body like a long comedown in hazy notes mimicking the vibrations of sharp withdrawals. It is music fed into a machine and spat back out as an AI’s prudent interpretation of Stravinsky versus AC/DC. As Bongo is persistently belittled by his commander for his mental weakness and eventually discharged, I imagine “Welcome to Hell” is what it sounds like to plug into a dial-up in the hopes of achieving nirvana. “Still”, written and sung tenderly by bassist Cameron Picton, comes like being dowsed by a bucket of cold water after the stiff, sweaty aggression of “Welcome to Hell”. It’s likely the best track on the album, yet so much of its power is drawn from the fact it is the right hook to “Welcome to Hell’s” left jab. With an atmosphere of Leckeyan mysticism that slowly rises up through weeping guitars like the soundtrack to an out-of-body experience, the song’s style mirrors the mental ambience of Picton’s psychopathic protagonist, itchily leading to the midpoint interlude of the album, “Half Time”. The album’s b-side is as if you are tuning into the frequency of a Hadean podcast where the guests would make Neil Young want to asphyxiate himself with his own guitar strings.
Somehow amping up the velocity without losing any of the tension, “The Race is About to Begin” acts as a sort of prequel as well as a sequel to “Welcome to Hell” set both the night before Bongo loses his falsely promised freedom, then later after that realisation has cracked through the musical equivalent of the smell of black exhaust-pipe-smoke as you breathe more fuel than air. Seeing this track live in its foetal state, I remember it seeming as if all the members of black midi were on the attack, with Simpson charging at his rusty cymbals, competing with Picton’s lumbering bassline as Greep’s voice sounded like it was coming apart at the seams, twisted way past the breaking point into something close to mongrel, canine growling. The sweaty stench of the mosh pit matched the setlist’s absolute degradation, as Greep retched his crippled words as if gnashing his teeth at invisible poltergeists, and the music found itself brushing up against The Windmill sound system’s capabilities, forming a crunchy, compressed headbanger as bm’s sound gives way to the great, swooning “The Defence” which could cap the end credits of a romantic comedy if it weren’t for the sempiternal narration of Satan himself. When God flayed our universal language after scattering human beings across the globe, I don’t think he could have predicted the cure of music (or Geordie Greep). Hellfire is coursing with a “been up all night” sort of daze, nonsense stewed through the throttled purrs of motorbikes and backroom card games, where you then blink and find yourself standing on a train platform at 8 am surrounded by city workers in suits and trying to keep your sick in the back of your throat. It’s a Brechtian staging via the Looney Tunes, or just what I imagine is broadcast through sweltering endless nights in hell.