Plenty of musicians have thrown shade on music writers throughout the years, but perhaps Van Halen’s David Lee Roth put it best when he said that “the reason the critics all like Elvis Costello better than me is because they all look like Elvis Costello.” While music writing has grown and diversified beyond white men throughout the years, the emotional core of Roth’s critique has remained the same: Elvis Costello was a nerd, and music writers also tend to be nerds.
Music nerds absolutely love bands like art school bands Black Midi, and frankly, you should too. Their new album, Hellfire, is a perfect chance to understand why. Black Midi is an absolute sonic rush, textured and layered. Listening to their music can feel like the equivalent of rolling over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The flow is overwhelming and you’re not really sure where you’re going to end up.
Starting at the beginning with the title track, Black Midi sounds a little like a 19th-century waltz played by robots who are slowly breaking down. And then in comes lead singer Georgie Greep (yes, this is a British art school band) speaking rapid-fire in a run-on sentence that keeps on going (lyrics and grammar courtesy of the band): “There’s always something, An odd twitch, hearing loss, A ringing noise, new flesh, A new bump, A weightlessness, A headache, A sore limb, An Itchy Gash, A Mirage, A Tumor, A scare And when one is fixed, another breaks When some destroyed, more await When it is Time, no one comes When you have time, it is up.”
What is this? Maybe it’s a pastoral doctor who has gone mad, wandering the countryside and handing out various maladies. Then the accordions come in, then the music rises and falls, the tension rises, it’s very easy to feel on edge listening to this. And then suddenly, the nonstop verbal barrage ends with a polite “thank you.” A bell rings. Song’s over.
It’s a whirlwind, and then the listener is sent into “Sugar/Tzu,” where a Michael Buffer-style sports announcer gets a crowd hyped to see some thunder. This leads into some soft jazz, which leads into the band’s signature rollicking riffs, and now Greep is describing “The Leadweight clash of the century, February 31st, 2163.” So now we’re in a futuristic boxing match, being described to the listener by “a 3 foot 3 superfluous freak Blinded by necks, upper backs, and knees.”
On and on it goes, each song delving into another world, signaling something radically different than what came before. The press for the album does a lot of heavy lifting by pulling the entire project together with the description “tells the tales of morally suspect characters.” But that still isn’t quite accurate; it doesn’t describe the tender love of “Still,” where Cameron Picton sings “I waited so long, That only a fool would try And stay If not for you If not for only you.”
Black Midi can’t be summed up easily, unless your summary is “a cacophonous mess.” But it’s a cacophonous mess that makes sense and is served up by people who know what they’re doing. It’s hard to pin exactly what that thing is, but a journey into the unknown with Black Midi is more enjoyable than many with clearly drawn maps.
It would be easy to label music like Black Midi’s as pretentious simply because it’s not easy listening. But Black Midi isn’t trying to put on airs. This is just their style. Taking a dip into these raging waters will, at the very least, give an appreciation for tunes that go down smoother.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.