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High on Fire smash expectations on new album

By Jess Linde

Section: Arts

September 4, 2015

High on Fire is a unique band, particularly for the metal scene, in that they have released seven albums over the years, and somehow managed to make each better than the last. Evolving from always-shirtless singer/guitarist Matt Pike’s stoner rock background and influences ranging from Slayer to H.P. Lovecraft, the Oakland, California trio keeps improving. It is because of this ever-improving appeal that High on Fire has gone from playing tiny clubs and releasing fuzzy (but great) lo-fi metal to being profiled on NPR and headlining festivals. Their latest album, “Luminiferous,” may be their highest-reaching record yet, and is certainly one of their best.

When I discovered the band through a gift of their 2002 release “Surrounded By Thieves,” they still had a lot of the stoner rock carrying over from Pike’s previous band, Sleep, but I was immediately hooked and poured over their back catalogue. I have seen them live twice, and every day of the three years between their newest release and their last one was an eternity.

“Luminiferous” begins with “The Black Plot” and “Carcosa,” two songs that draw lyrics from horror and weird fiction and guitar riffs that come down like a thunderbolt. They start the record in an explosive instant, with Pike smashing through chords and roaring like a madman. “The Sunless Years,” and “Slave the Hive,” are just as amazing, with incredible aggression in every note and some very memorable choruses. The speed of “Slave the Hive” is of particular note, because said speed does not quash the complexity of the songs. Bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel provide an incredible rhythm section to the slow, rolling destruction of “The Falconist,” with some of the best blast beats this side of “Reign in Blood.” And Matt Pike, who plays a nine-string guitar, still pulls of solos like he has an extra hand working the fretboard.

The production by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou is also of note. Ballou, who has been producing some of the best extreme albums in recent years (including High on Fire’s 2012 album “De Vermis Mysteriis”) brings a mix to each album he works on’s sound that brings out the best in the band. This is why slower songs on “Luminiferous” like “The Dark Side of the Compass” and longer tracks like “The Cave” and “The Lethal Charmer” are never boring, always interesting and aurally crushing. “Luminiferous” just sounds huge all the way through, and Ballou is definitely a part of that. This is an interesting contrast with 2005’s “Blessed Black Wings” that was lauded for its stripped-down production by Chicago analog purist Steve Albini, but which I found underwhelming. High on Fire may have felt the same way, since they have gone bigger and louder with each consecutive album.

Case in point how “Luminiferous” reaches its thrash-metal peak on the title track, which is also the screamiest and the shortest on the album. Like the eponymous songs of “De Vermiis Mysteriis” and 2009’s “Snakes for their Divine,” it is an epic, with the band giving their all. And it’s just great, which is what I can say for the entire album. While “Snakes for the Divine” remains my favorite High on Fire album, “Luminiferous” brings back the same feelings of excitement I felt when I heard the band for the first time. As a jaded music snob feel I should be worried that High on Fire will break their streak on their next album, but they have not for seven straight, and as “Luminiferous” shows, that may not be possible as long as this band exists.

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