Is Metal the New Indie-Rock?

high on fire.jpgThe reason Terry Richardson showed up

High on Fire + The Bronx + Big Business + Buried Inside Bowery Ballroom February 3, 2006

Flipping through Decibel magazine is like sneaking a peak at an alien civilization, all its majesty on full display but all its codes left scrambled. Decibel is either the Murder Dog or the Wax Poetics of metal, maybe both. The magazine treats its subject ("extreme music") with respect but not reverence; it's fully immersed within its own world, but it isn't afraid to poke fun at itself. Most music magazines these days are written for teenagers; they don't assume their readers will have any knowledge-base about the music they cover. The writers and editors at Decibel are entirely willing to make neophyte readers feel like idiots; they presuppose that we'll already have a working understanding of the importance of Bolt Thrower and that we have some idea what the fuck "Swedish guitars" sound like. I might've never read Decibel if my roommate didn't sometimes write for it, but it might be the best music magazine around right now. It does exactly what a music magazine should: it makes you want to know more about the stuff it covers.

So let's give it a shot. Along with Mastodon, High on Fire might be the best available entry point to America's dense and insular metal underground. The trio's credentials are impeccable: frontman Matt Pike previously led the doom-metal giants Sleep, whose final album, Jerusalem, was just one 52-minute song, and new bassist Joe Preston was a member of grunge OGs the Melvins. But more importantly, the band's thunderous roar, though undiluted to these ears, is catholic enough to make sense to anyone with a few Black Sabbath and Metallica tapes lying around her apartment. Pike's riffs are huge and monumental, fast enough to pack a fierce wallop but slow enough to swing. Onstage, Pike is a walking distillation of all things hessian, long hair and no shirt and big chest tattoos and black leather gauntlets and inaudibly shouted stage banter and goofy facial expressions. Friday night, he walked out puffing on a blunt, which he passed to someone in the audience before he said a word or played a note. Preston, meanwhile, looked like Lungfish's Dan Higgs after a summer spent working on Alaskan oil rigs, grizzly beard and piercing eyes and slept-in clothes. He let Pike's flailing guitar heroics take center stage, standing back and playing hired gun, nothing theatrical about him. (I couldn't really see the drummer.) After a few songs, the band's caveman groove begins to feel oddly familiar; it's big and punishing, but at the same time there's something pleasant and comforting in knowing that people are still making this kind of old-school riffed-out powerstomp. High on Fire might not exactly challenge, but they do the trick.

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Download: "Devilution" Download: "The Face of Oblivion" Download: "Eyes and Teeth" Download: "Nemesis"

The LA-based jokers in the Bronx, not so much. The band's snarly-fast hardcore and total lack of hooks aren't great, but they're not nearly as obnoxious and borderline-offensive as its cliched-up rock-you pose, the singer screaming "Yeah!" and "Uh!" between songs and constantly jumping into the big but unthreatening moshpit he'd started. I probably shouldn't even need to say it, but it's not daring for a white person who isn't Patti Smith in 1976 to yell "We are four motherfuckin' rock and roll niggers" in a room full of white people. It's stupid. The night before, Rjyan Kidwell had said something about "fake debauchery," the sort of thing that happens when an energy drink sponsors a party. The Bronx is a perfect example.

Download: "Heart Attack American" Download: "White Tar"

Big Business might be the opposite, a band that gives so little attention to its image that it doesn't even have one of those just-the-music images. They're one of those bass-and-drums fuzz-noise duos, less jagged and enigmatic than Lightning Bolt, less coked-out and elaborately facial-haired than Death From Above 1979, but similar to both bands in their waves of roiling spazz-drums and fuzzed-out distorto-bass. The noise-clouds they conjure are impressive, but they aren't exactly inspiring, and it's hard to connect with a band when the two dudes onstage won't even look at the audience.

Or maybe not. Thier singer spent most of the band's set with his back to the crowd, but Buried Inside may have been the most exciting band on the bill. The band emerged onstage in total darkness, letting their guitars feed back as the singer went into a muffled spoken-word rant; I couldn't make out most of it, but it seemed to be about Iraq. The noise swelled and rose until, all of a sudden, the drums rang out, the lights flashed on, and the band launched into a huge dinosaur groove, all five members headbanging in time. As introductions go, it's hard to do much better than that. Even better, the band maintained that momentum through its set, building a series of turbulent swamp-churns, smashing a gong, swinging hair, and saying nothing between songs. In fact, the set may have just been one forty-minute song; I'm not sure. If it wasn't the first song was definitely like fifteen minutes long, and it never got boring. More bands like this, please.

Download: "Time as Abjection" Download: "Time as Ideology"

Voice review: George Smith on High on Fire's Blessed Black Wings

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