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The word epic comes up often when discussing Oakland metalheads High on Fire, referencing both the guitar riffs pounding you into submission and—like their foremost influence, Celtic Frost—an esoteric literary influence that avoids venturing into Mastodon territory. And though, by the time you’ve plowed through enough of Death Is This Communion to reach singer-guitarist Matt Pike’s mantle-shifting solo on “Waste of Tiamat,” you probably won’t be considering the finer points of Sumerian mythology, it’s worth noting that the trio’s novelistic qualities stretch beyond lyrical considerations. One listen to DITC‘s melancholic majesty will compel you to both exalt in Pike’s guitar-playing and read Robert E. Howard while smoking weed.
Only men with a certain brand of tenacity can mix brawn and brain like this without sounding derivative or cheesy; what’s more, High on Fire have gotten progressively better with each release— no easy feat, considering they could’ve stagnated, content merely to ape Pike’s old band, the sludge-metal titans Sleep, sped up to 45. But progress aside, DITC will still melt your speakers. Jack Endino’s clean yet full-tilt production fills out the sound, but it’s drummer Des Kensel’s ability to push forward and hold back—not simply pound monochromatically from start to finish—that truly creates the thriving, volatile atmosphere here: a black, acrid environment wherein Pike’s guitar creeps out from Frazetta swamp logs, climbs dead trees, and summons lightning bolts from black thunderclouds, beneath which sordid rituals of Lovecraftian proportions take shape.
But that, too, avoids outright cliché: While there are indeed “beings that come from darkness” lurking within the seven-minute “Ethereal,” Pike has never been one to overplay the Satan card, instead evoking kingdoms in the clutches of despotic rulers, alien Annunaki serpents guarding sunken Atlantean keys, and other images providing ample weight for the wrecking ball. Let’s face it: Pure fucking evil can be just as boring as any stodgy moralist preaching the “good of mankind,” but while High on Fire deploy strategic nuance, there’s not too much. If you play this record backwards, you’ll still hear voices telling you to break shit, get arrested, and drink Jägermeister. They just might suggest you read a history book, too.
High on Fire play Webster Hall October 8, websterhall.com