Review Summary: Stoner metal takes an amphetamine or two, and boy does it feel good.
It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s heavy, and it’s higher than Tommy Chong on vacation in Amsterdam. You know what that means?
Yeah, it’s High On Fire.
Anyone who bothers to read this review probably already knows what to expect, but to those newcomers to the fold or those curious, here’s the crash course: High On Fire is the baby of Matt Pike, guitarist for the now-defunct Stoner Metal heroes Sleep (the two remaining members left to form the band Om, who coincidentally also have a new album on store shelves). To those patient enough to listen, the crushing riffs and slow burn of Sleep were the evolution of the legacy early Black Sabbath left behind: Metal that instead of focusing on technicality, speed, and attitude, achieves epic brutality through fuzzed out guitars at inhumanly high volume playing slow, punishing riffs. High On Fire’s a lot like that.
Except it’s fast. Really fast. And on this disc, even faster.
To be perfectly frank, I’ve had a difficult time listening to High On Fire in the past. Just like Sleep before them, HOF likes their songs long, and organic, music that twists and turns at its own pace on its own terms, the kind of songs you need to sit down and play through a few times to appreciate. This is not everyone’s work-out music, this is something to sit down and dedicate a good hour to. Matt Pike’s vocals sound like the murmurings of a sleepwalking wolverine, and take a bit to get used to, especially when they’re mixed at the very bottom of the sound. Also, most of HOF’s past discs have been sketchy, hit and miss affairs, with a few great tracks on each disc, but nothing superior to anything else. The main exception to this disc was their last effort, the Steve Albini produced Blessed Black Wings, which was a pretty good disc with an outstanding single (Devilution).
But this disc? This disc makes that looks like child’s play.
For one, finally the disc sounds as fast as it actually is. On their past efforts no matter how quickly the toms rolled and cymbals crashed, the songs just felt sluggish. No more. Possibly due to the addition of powerful double bass. The Drums even get their own massive solo section as the tribal track Headhunter, which brings out powerful memories of Roots-era Sepultura. If you never believed that any Stoner Metal band that wasn’t named Mastodon could make a song worthy of a circle pit, listen to the two minute sidewinder Rumors of War, which segues into the instrumental thrashfest DII(my vote for album highlight). And if you thought that’s as good as it gets, just wait for the second half of titanic closing track Return to NOD. Do not, however, expect metalcore style double bass breakdowns or multi-tempo fills, think something more akin to the work of Motorhead and you’ve got a better idea. As a matter of fact, that’s an excellent analogy. If The Sword and Wolfmother are attempting to be reincarnations of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, respectively, High On Fire is this decade’s Motorhead, musically.
For another, this is Pike’s best lead guitar work ever. The riffs are heavy and fuzzy, giving the impression of a titanic velvet-covered sledgehammer clobbering away at the listener’s temples. The solos may be furious and in-your-face, but where he shines are on the bridges and interludes which often catapult the music into almost progressive levels of atmosphere. The watery super groove at the tail end of Ethereal in particular is placed at just the opportune time to keep your attention on the music when it finally begins to drag. There is more variety on this disc than any other High On Fire CD, and for my money the more unexpected places a metal disc can take my imagination, the better. Creepy acoustic guitars pepper the landscape of Waste of Tiamat, while Arabian scales and possibly a sitar or two provide a much needed breather on Khanrad’s Wall, which soon crumbles in the face of album standout Turk. Equally exotic is the epic Cyclopean Space (is the title a riff on Mastodon’s Circle of Cysquatch, I wonder?).
This is also, probably, their most easily accessible work. While the title track may be one of HOF’s longer tracks, its bass riff is one of the most memorable in the band’s career. Also, momentary breaks in the fuzz allow the words of Pike to be readily understandable at times! Rumors of war will have hundreds of fans at once stand up and shout along to Pike’s furious line ‘Spit in his evil eye!’ Come to think of it, the only track that didn’t open my eyes wider at any point in time was opener Fury Whip, but it’s already better than some bands do in their entire careers.
So where’s the bad? Well, this CD is not going to be making Pike very many fans he didn’t already have, for one. High On fire may sound great, but hipsters used to the crystal clear bassless productions so chic in today’s mall metal that I doubt the acoustic melodies and stoneriffic attack are going to win them over. For another, those expecting the spiritual musings of post metal, the political rants so popular this year, or even the booze band songs Lemmy of Motorhead spins will all come out empty handed. The lyrics here are all the pulp novel power mythology of yore as popularized by their more fantastical peers, and unlike Mastodon they lack the conceptual undercurrent to get them credit with the literary set. But if you’re like me and think reading old school Conan the Barbarian novellas is an excellent way to burn away a Sunday afternoon, those lyrics are worth the price of admission alone, even if you’re going to need to scour the booklet and/or internet to understand all of it.
Long story short, if you A) do not like metal or B) do not have patience, don’t even bother picking this up, this is no gateway album, this is a gold metal around the necks of those dedicated enough to dare and fall in love with the burning crusade that is High On Fire’s music. However if you’re a fan of the genre with a bit of a skeptical look on your face when you hear HOF, this is the album to start with. Those of you who picked up Mastodon’s Blood Mountain and found the whole thing just a bit too crisp clean and Technicolor to match the expectations left by Leviathan, boy is this the disc for you.
Hype aside, this is their best disc, but I still cannot help feeling like Pike and co can impress me even more next time.