Release DetailsLABEL Relapse
RELEASED ON 9/18/2007
High On Fire
Death Is This Communion
The onslaught of metal I’ve withstood in the past 16 months as a member of this staff has taken its toll, and as a result, there are very few albums released over the past five months or so that make me stop everything and take serious notice. High On Fire is just one of those bands that you can truly rely on to create some seriously damaging rhythmic fury. There are no belched vocals, no blast beats, and no pterodactyl shrieks, just solid, uncompromised metal, and Death Is This Communion is yet another smoking hot example of killer songwriting winning out over the masses of messes in the current metal/hardcore scene.
I’ve never really considered anything by High On Fire to have reached a level of brilliance that defies description, but this latest monster doesn’t show many crippling flaws, if any at all. With a clear yet scraping guitar tone and a seriously huge drum sound, the Jack Endio production is without fault, and brings every note powerfully forth. It’s only proper that this collection of sludgy yet sometimes hyperactive compositions should be given such pristine aural treatment, highlighted by the intriguing mix of dual vocals during the expressive “Waste Of Tiamat”. Like a drunken, stoned, and unimpressed Lemmy, Matt Pike slowly lumbers his way through the lengthy title track, a rare example of a trudging stoner-styled anthem of sorts that touches the eight-minute mark with no tedium to be suffered through, while exhibiting very little by way of songwriting dynamics. “Khanrad’s Wall” adds a flurry of exotic acoustics to the mix, briefly but broadly stretching the album into more eclectic territory which is revisited during the beginning of the chugging “Cyclopian Scape“, but then they turn around and throw out “Turk” sounding almost like a Slayer song played at half-speed with a guitar solo that isn‘t too far removed from the Hanneman style of lead playing, albeit less purely chaotic.
Tunes like opener “Fury Whip”, “Rumors Of War” (the middle track in the “Head Hunter”/ “Rumors Of War”/ “DII” triumvirate) and the aforementioned “Cyclopian Scape” are a bit more rapid-fire than the majority of the album, but High On Fire never really go for the throat during their most aggressive moments. This album sometimes exudes a sorrowful, morose atmosphere, highlighted in Pike’s jaw-dropping vocal performance during “Ethereal” which made me realize how the success of …Communion is a result of Pike’s slightly worn, fatigued-but-persevering singing style. Dez Kensel and Jeff Matz make an intimidating and effective rhythm section, and they certainly hold their own when given room to shine, but Pike is clearly stepping forth as the front piece of the band this time around, whereas Joe Preston’s amazing job on Blessed Black Wings may have diverted a bit of the spotlight in 2005.
Other than perhaps the soon to be released Today Is The Day disc Axis Of Eden, I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off from writing for a little while. High On Fire is as dependable as it gets when it comes to metal these days, with riffs thick as cement, a tone that totally satisfies your hunger better than any candy bar, and the lost modern art of great songwriting held firmly in place. They should be very proud to be the brightest jewel in the crown of the high profile powerhouse year Relapse has had in 2007, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Death Is This Communion receive many top kudos come year-end list time. There’s a whole lotta’ good going on here, so indulge the killer in you and check it out. Auf Wiedersehen, for now.
I think Jim is right on the money (which is yet another reason why we’re going to miss him. Start the slow applause, please), so if you’d indulge me, I’d like to look at this album in an atypical way.
(With the word “atypical” echoing throughout the minds of anyone that wanted a quickie 500 word write-up and thus causing them to pour water on their computer in frustration, I’d like to kindly bring up this warning: The inside joke concerning my reviewing style is that you can give me wildly different songs/albums/bands and I’ll try and find the right angle (any angle) to connect them. Example joke: Ian believes that you can draw many parallels between Cannibal Corpse’s “Force Fed Broken Glass” and Karen Carpenter’s mindset during her battle with anorexia, thus making it a clear cousin of, and maybe substantially influenced by, The Carpenters’ Voice of the Heart. Minus, you know, the whole oral sex thing. The same is true when it comes bands' catalogues that, on the surface, haven’t really changed much, i.e. High on Fire. Alright, remember that and keep it on the backburner).
When High on Fire’s Blessed Black Wings dropped during a rather slow 2005 (for me, anyway), I said that it not only showed immense growth, but signaled that the band was ready to take their music in a completely different direction. Understandably, nearly everyone thought I was nuts since the differences between Blessed and the band’s previous album, the minor crossover success Surrounded by Thieves ("Hung, Drawn and Quartered" made the Tony Hawk soundtrack) were, really, few and far between. I mean, all the basic elements were still there and I don't many, if any, thought the band would be switching genres, well, ever. After all, Matt Pike (aka He with the Midas touch when it comes to big ass riffs) still had that husky shout and the band also retained that unmistakable style, that aggressive brand of sped up stoner doom with hints of thrash, a bit o' punk's attitude/energy (Punk + metal in the Motorhead sense, of course), and other basic metal elements that, when the band was cooking, sounded like ten thousand scared clydesdales escaping from a glue factory. But, to these ears, there was a subtle change in the wind, and a lot of it seemed to stem from the production, which, as it would happen, is the exact thing that sets Death is this Communion apart from its predecessor.
Here’s what I mean: Steve Albini’s job on the knobs for Blessed Black Wings was genius for the way that it forced High on Fire to push their hooks up to the front so they could be heard above the din. Tracks like “Brother in the Wind” exhibited a newer take on the band’s attack: still heavy, still bloodthirsty, still exhilaratingly messy sounding, but with more of an emphasis on the melody. Sure, The Art of Self Defense’s “Sleep, but, like, faster!” riffs and the majority of Surrounded by Thieves had similar melodies, but you had to go looking for 'em, moving gigantic riff boulders and trying to catch the little melodious bastards before the light of the next section made them burrow once more. With Blessed, never before had the melody been so far forward, and even the raging thrashers like “Devilution” packed in the hooks and came off as rather anthemic because of the band’s interest in making these songs last in the heads of their listeners. It truly must’ve been painstaking work (as the three years between albums showed), but the album remains a testament to their efforts; catchy and well-structured, yet never losing that je ne sais quois; that energy, that we-cut-this-in-one-take feel that is inherent to the band and a crucial part of their likeability. Steve Albini was a big part of that.
Fellow one-time Nirvana producer Jack Endino swings High on Fire in a different direction. With a brighter, far crisper production, the band can (and does) pull back on the reigns. So, instead of the bruising, fast n’ dirty High on Fire, the band downplays their usual stampede of rumbling bass lines, thundering drums, and gigant-o guitars, choosing to take on a slightly more, dare I say, progressive and controlled sound. Also interesting is how the band comes across with such a production, no longer sounding like the product of a scrappy, dangerous outfit plugging in, lighting up, and hitting record on an ancient and beat-up four track. That might lose some people, but the cleaner sound makes you realize just how BIG Pike’s riffs are, especially after they’ve been washed up and have had the grime removed (I like the grime more though. Just me). In turn, their attack has become more measured, perhaps losing some of that aggression, but opening up new sonic and compositional possibilities.
Now is the time when you’ll understand my little warning above when it comes to my near-delusional obsession with finding something (anything) to compare and contrast: Death is this Communion’s two opening cuts are High on Fire tracks through and through. They are not oddities, they don’t sound remarkably different from past works, and they don’t contain any surprises, hidden or otherwise. “Fury Whip” is almost prototypical of this period of Pike’s career, getting things started with a suitably heavy riff (one that’s oddly reminiscent of Mastodon’s Remission stuff. In fact, a few more parts of this album sound strangely similar. Purists, feel free to gasp.) that transitions into that unmistakable onslaught. “Waste of Tiamat,” too is familiar, sort of falling in with those midpaced Blessed numbers (Almost the same melody as “To Cross the Bridge.” So, "Blessed, but cleaner and more mindful" would be a good six word review if you were looking for one). The title track is where things get interesting though, kinda like Motorhead covering Killing Joke (I can't be the only one that hears this. It's in the song's construction more than anything). The pace of the song isn't the thing that’s a bit weird, as High on Fire have had their fair share of slower tracks, but the song doesn’t "rage" in the same fashion. I’d hate to call it laidback, because it’s obviously not, but it’s, shall we say, slightly more subdued and more interested in building up rather than blowing its load as quickly as possible and trying to sustain that "O." From that point on, the band explores and reexamines their trademark sound. For example: The segue “Khanrad's Wall” is quite unlike anything I’ve heard from them (acoustic segue with a Turkish flavor), appropriately leading into “Turk” which has a classic groove and a far older-sounding metal feel to it. And then there’s “Ethereal,” which just might be one of the least abrasive songs they’ve cut to date. Them melodies sure ain’t trying to burrow here and that’s partly because the production never tries to obscure them, leading me to ask one of the original questions I posed when Blessed Black Wings first hit: Did the band write with the future production in mind or did they just find the right producer to fully flesh out what they had written (Me thinks it's the latter, but it's food for thought)?
Fans needn’t be worry though. Even with these slight changes (did I mention that there‘s a mellotron on “DII“? I‘m not kidding! How cool is that?), you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that the song remains the same more often than not. Again, all the basic elements are still there. Matt Pike still has that voice that makes you feel unexplainably good--the kind of vocals that you can only get from years of whiskey and bong smoke abuse, like he once swallowed a bucket full of gravel and them stones are now imbedded in his vocal folds--and, like a Louis Armstrong or a Tom Waits, if you try to imitate his timbre, you’ll shred your voice and everyone will think you’ve been claimed by emphysema (Eavesdropping woman yesterday: “God…so young…”). But, you’ll still sing along regardless because the hooks are that good. And, predictably, that’s part of High on Fire's appeal and why they’ve been able to take over the hearts and minds of even the most demanding mainstream critic; they make quite a noise, but their musicality never takes a dip, as they’re never content to just plow through these joints without leaving a catchy hook/riff for the innocent non-metal bystander to pick up on. Plus, while they largely eschew specific categorization, they generally fit in with what most people think of when they think metal, not to mention, generally fitting in with what most people want out of metal.
And, if previous sales figures and underground buzz are any indication, people want a band that is able to draw from all periods of the genre without picking up any datable clichés. High on Fire does exactly that and it’s what makes them sound rather timeless, not in the sense that Death is this Communion will be around forever (although, I have this strange feeling about this one), but that, if you were going into this blind, settling on a certain time period would prove difficult since they seem to exist outside of the trends, creating music that’s plain metal without metal’s usual baggage (the exploitation of current “hot“ styles, the need to outdo elders, etc.). That’s the reason why I think they'll will outlast the other bands that have poked their heads out of their underground holes and have been “discovered” by a mainstream press that’s starting to respect metal again. That, and their constant (not to mention consistent) evolution and the hunger they show when it comes to attaining that next step. Of course, that’s coming from me, the obsessive nerd that could isolate differences between cloned sheep (You with the kilt, you can‘t join me on this one. No). For many, this is going to be the same ol’ thing, but, hey, at least it’s a good thing, right? Right.
RelatedHigh On Fire
The Art Of Self Defense (Reissue)
7/31/2012 High On Fire
De Vermis Mysteriis
4/3/2012 High On Fire
Snakes For The Divine
2/23/2010 High On Fire
Live from the Relapse Contamination Festival
8/2/2005 High On Fire
Blessed Black Wings