To see and hear High on Fire in a live setting is to witness one of the most massive-sounding power trios to come along in years. Drummer Des Kensel pounds away on his kit with reckless, primal urgency, the bassist of the moment (be it George Rice, Joe Preston, or new guy Jeff Matz — all are formidable) thrums away a bottom end that rattles your fillings, while guitarist Matt Pike is a madman up front, shredding out solos, unleashing wicked, churning riffs, and roaring into the mic with his raspy howl. The phrase “wall of wound” is dragged out all too often, but when facing the full sonic assault that High on Fire unleashes onstage, there is no more appropriate description. The band is, without hyperbole, absolutely monolithic.
By now you probably know the story about the band: Pike leaving stoner legends Sleep to focus on a more aggressive sound that blended Sleep’s sludgy style with classic metal riffs and Motörhead-style four-on-the-floor rock ‘n’ roll, his new band yielding a pair of well-received full-lengths (including the near-classic Surrounded By Thieves), teaming up with Steve Albini on 2005’s excellent Blessed Black Wings, and earning points with the indie rock crowd while continuing to steadily build a grass-roots fanbase through relentless, non-stop touring. Two and a half years later, the band’s fourth album attempts to take High on Fire to the proverbial Next Level, and succeeds mightily, thanks in large part to a new producer, more daring arrangements, a keener melodic sense, while retaining that crushingly heavy tone.
What Albini did so brilliantly on Blessed Black Wings was give the trio’s sound much more clarity after the sludgy first two record, emphasizing the band’s live feel through his trademark, drum-heavy recording style. On board for Death is This Communion, however, is another alt-rock legend in Jack Endino (who produced Nirvana’s Bleach among many others), who broadens the High on Fire sound, yet at the same time creates a much cozier mix as opposed to the more spacious Wings. The end result: an album with far more nuance than any fan might have expected, but with enough blunt force to throttle the majority of the 2007 metal competition. Need proof? Just check out the sixth track “Headhunter”, which is nothing but Kensel hammering out layer upon layer of percussion for more than a minute, fading in louder and louder, which suddenly segues into the triumphant “Rumors of War”, Pike’s growl of, “Spit in their evil eye!” kicking off a thrashing, headbang-inducing Motörhead jam for two insane minutes. In other words, this album slays.
The aptly titled “Fury Whip” kicks off Communion by bursting out of the gate at a frantic pace, propelled by Kensel’s overpowering double-kick beats (the first time he’s ever done that with the band), as Pike, who sounds more and more like Lemmy as each year goes by, has fun with the fantasy/war lyrical themes that has dominated his recent work. Pike’s Lovecraft fascination dominates that eight and a half minute epic title track, which has the trio outdoing themselves as far as the arrangement goes, Kensel providing a simple tom-filled beat that intertwines with Matz’s serpentine bassline, allowing Pike the freedom to take his guitar playing to a more theatrical, grandiose realm, highlighted by his solo midway through. The band gels especially well on the rampaging “Turk”, as Pike provides some of his best melodic vocals to date in between enough rhythmic upshifts and downshifts to please any metal fan.
The familiar sounds are thrilling enough, but the real treat on Death is This Communion is just how much variety the band brings into the music this time around. Acoustic guitar adds a sober, brooding touch to “Cyclopian Scape” and the nuclear war themed “Waste of Tiamat”, a tambour adds a very effective Middle Eastern touch to “Khanrad’s Wall”, and Pike’s terrific solos on the ornate instrumental “DII” are very nicely underscored by mellotron. That said, it’s the lengthy “Ethereal” that really stands out, even though it’s without the added bells and whistles of the previous tracks, instead showcasing a much more streamlined arrangement, Pike’s melodic riff economical, and the rhythms section downplayed enough to allow room for his surprisingly catchy multi-tracked lead vocals. Such skillful counterbalancing of gigantic heaviness with moments of musical refinement has High on Fire flirting with greatness, on arguably their finest work to date.