Friday, February 15, 2008

High On Fire - Death Is This Communion

More than anything, you have to admire High On Fire frontman Matt Pike’s stoic dedication to the stoner metal ethos. His work within this Oakland power trio essentially is a continuation of the formula he already helped perfect during Sleep, a band who’s sludge is revered enough that they’re rightfully cited as one of the most important metal bands in the past quarter century.
Add that body of work along with the four albums he’s done with High On Fire, and you’ve got nearly two decades of fairly devoted shit-hot magma rock.
Don’t think for a moment that Pike is a dimwitted stoner still trying to work the mojo of a genre that’s not too kind towards middle ground or middle aged. Instead, he’s tackled his mid-thirties with an almost religious devotion to his craft and a keen eye on maintaining an underground credibility. There’s something very calculated about hiring Steve Albini man the boards for their last album, Blessed Black Wings, while tapping legendary Seattleite Jack Endino to direct their latest effort.
But when you think about it, Endino may have been the best choice ever when they started making Death Is This Communion. He’s helped harness some of the best Sabbath worshippers in the Northwest and it wouldn’t surprise me if Pike has a lot of Endino produced records in his own collection.
So yeah, the match-up delivers: Endino’s work on Death Is This Communion is a great compliment to the band’s musicianship and vision. It’s the band’s finest document, and one in which newcomers should begin with.
At the same time, the pairing also serves as a reminder to an era when there were at least a dozen or so bands that mined the same sludge fields. High On Fire has the luxury of having a fairly substantial grip on the whole smart man’s larghetto rock, so it stands out to an extent. But for those who remember grunge’s halcyon days, you can probably name about five or six bands that sounded strikingly similar to High On Fire, with one obvious difference: Page’s outfit is refined, intentional, and occasionally unmemorable.
Even though the land that they navigate is full of additional exploration, H.O.F. focus all of their implements on plowing through Saint Vitus grooves with a top soil of Celtic Frost lyricism. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly been done before and it certainly won’t win them an audience much wider than what Saint Vitus or Celtic Frost experienced during their own formative years.
On rare occasions, namely the first minute of “Cyclopian Scape” and the entire two-and-a-half minute passage “Khanrad’s Wall,” in which Pike uses a Middle Eastern chord progression to create a nifty acoustic landscape, the band displays brief hints of growth and experimentation. “DII” even puts a mellotron to good use underneath the relentless ‘chug-chug-chug’ of Pike’s guitar.
But these diversions are the exceptions and not the rule, which is a polite way of saying that it’s another High On Fire album when it could have been a High On Fire statement, one that shakes the genre from its constraints just like Pike did with Sleep’s Dopesmoker.
The riffage is incredible and it’s mixed high enough that you can almost overlook the fact that Pike’s vocal duties carry an enormous weight but very little in terms of real power. Think Lemmy Kilminster with, perhaps, even fewer fluctuations in his register, and you then get an idea of how fatigued I felt after listening to Death Is This Communion from start to finish.
Ok. We get it. High On Fire is as primal and devoted as ever, but usually by the fourth album we’re seeing some evidence of growth and challenge. It’s time for them to breathe some new life into drop-D deconstructionism because there are moments when Death Is This Communion sound like rigor mortis is setting in.

High On Fire is appearing at The Picador Monday, February 18th. Be there. Bring earplugs.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

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