Saturday, May 1, 2010

High on Fire - Death Is This Communion

With the release of their new album, High on Fire appears poised to become the next, but not necessarily new standard of mainstream heavy metal; a sort of post-Pantera return to the pre-Opeth age. Whatever its faults, they are preferable to the many sagging, shabby and vigor-less stand-ins on store shelves today. Though as many voices scoffed at as did praise 2005’s Blessed Black Wings, that album and its successor represent a needed turn back toward a more accessible kind of metal that is unapologetic—and plainly—still has some balls. In this case, nine of them.

It seems like an unlikely position for guitarist/songwriter Matt Pike, the former wizard behind the simmering, clam-baked jams of stoner rock behemoth Sleep, but over the last several years High on Fire has gradually cultivated, and here fully developed a faster and more aggressive style similar to later-period Slayer (“Fury Whip”) and pre-Derrick Green Sepultura (“Waste of Tiamat,” “Turk”) with the essential influences of Motorhead (“Rumors of War”) and St. Vitus still pumping below the music’s layers of bloodied thew and gristle.

Whereas the former groups eventually fell back on rote antipathy or attempts at pale authenticity by molding native culture around modern trends, High on Fire carefully blend fantasy in with realty, finding the needed balance to maintain their portrait of barbaric, Howardian landscapes (once more vividly articulated by artist Arik Roper) and allusions to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos in ways relevant to the present—where truly nothing is too strange—without the preachiness that’s soured the best of more recognized acts from Metallica onward.

Where the album lacks subtlety it more than compensates with its tightly reigned in performances. And although Pike’s sense of melody and grizzled howls (here brought much further into the mix by producer John Endino) are the heart of Death is This Communion, it’s the titanic sound of drummer Des Kensel that give the monster its hundred legs to stand on. Varied by touches of mid-eastern music on the instrumental “Khanrad’s wall;” the almost literally acted out tribal concussions of Kensel’s “Headhunter” drum solo; the epic crush of “DII,” and a pair of non-sequitur space-rock jams inserted later on, the album is fairly strategic in the amount of ground it covers, at times majestically so. But it never strays from its center of power and force while spiraling inward toward that common terminus, with grace accomplished.

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