Not just content with dropping Sleep’s unexpected return to unconsciousness on national stoner day 2018 (4/20), the weed-worshipping doom act’s first studio album since the pivotal Dopesmoker in 2003, vocalist/riff-legend Matt Pike has also primed a new High on Fire album for all the speed-freaks. Played successively, High on Fire’s new LP acts as a synapse fryin’ jolt to your reptilian brain in comparison to Sleep’s slower, DMT-fuelled comedown trip.
Over the last 20 years High on Fire have been consistently likened to another rebellious trio—Motörhead. Indeed, given the velocity of High on Fire’s attack and the ear-splintering volume and force of their live show, such comparisons are warranted. And now that the classic Motörhead line-up is hellraising on another astral plane, the Iron Fist has been passed to Pike, drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz to lead the charge, and at times throughout this album, they do so with gusto.
The Lemmy comparison must have been weighing on Pike’s subconsciousness in the run-up to the new album because, in the press release accompanying it, the talismanic Pike mentions a dream he had involving a certain Mr. Kilmister. He stated: “…[So] I had this dream where [Lemmy] got pissed at me. He gave me a bunch of shit, basically, and was hazing me. Not that he didn’t approve of me, but like I was being hazed. [“Electric Messiah”] is me telling the world that I could never fill Lemmy’s shoes because Lemmy’s Lemmy. I wanted to pay homage to him in a great way. And it turned out to be such a good title that the guys said we should call the album Electric Messiah. Although at first, the working title was Insect Workout With Lemmy.”
We’ll leave it to you to decide which album title works best. The title track homage, however, is certainly much better than the oddly morose and overly long Lemmy tribute on Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. In fairness, no other contemporary band captures the Motörhead rumble as naturally High on Fire; the speed, groove, and no-fucks attitude are just in their road-hardened bones, and “Electric Messiah” really highlights that. A count in from Kensel and an Overkill double-bass-driven blitzkrieg kicks the song off on an amphetamine-riddled gallop, the tempos increasing to insane levels at times. Pike and Matz join the thunder and ride the lightning with their riffs and the song surges onwards without a second’s drag.
“Electric Messiah” and the equally turbo-charged “Spewn From the Earth” are essential to the flow of this record’s first half. They are sequenced to separate two monolithic songs, both of which have lengthy running times. The Sumerian “rock opera”, “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil”, is a primordial powerhouse of a track. Kensel’s incessant tom-pounding sounds cavernous thanks to Kurt Ballou’s production (his third LP for High on Fire), as though he’s using the femur bones of some ancient beast instead of drumsticks. The gruff vocal chants and marching rhythms as the song trudges onward give the desired effect of sun-battered Mesopotamian slaves pulling huge stones up steep steps. The riff that follows is capable of flattening a Ziggurat; such is the immensity of its power—it is without a doubt the most emphatic part of the album. But the song doesn’t end there as High on Fire follow it with more tempo changes and cyclic grooves with empire-collapsing momentum.
The doom-heavy “Sanctioned Annihilation” on the other hand, is more a war of attrition. While it doesn’t cover as much ground as you’d expect for a track breaking the 10-minute mark, the pummelling tribal rhythms keep you engaged and the later syncopations between the trio are impressive, so too the extended solo sections from Pike; they’re bluesy and all feel, like he’s just free-flowing and caught in the moment. But it’s at this stage of the album something a bit further outside their wheelhouse is required; perhaps a track like “The Falconist” or “The Cave” from 2015’s Luminiferous, two fantastic songs exploring a melodic side of the band we hadn’t heard before.
There is nothing as overtly melodic on this album as those two songs, which is in itself not an issue for a band as typically boisterous and brutal as this. But even though more generic High on Fire jams such as “The Pallid Mask” or “The Witch and the Christ” smoke most metal bands, it has to be said that there is a bit of invention missing during the latter half of the record despite the relentless thrashing sludge of the Sir Francis Drake-inspired “Freebooter”. Thankfully, though, Kensel’s ever-shifting drumming once again prevents the less-inspired tracks from becoming too monotonous, yet it’s “Drowning Dog” that finishes the record on an upswing through its catchy trad-metal riffs, memorable vocal refrains, and Iron Maiden-esque solos. Maybe “Drowning Dog” could have been utilized a couple of tracks earlier, and maybe some of the preceding songs could have been improved upon with similarly strong vocal hooks?
Despite such niggling issues which prevent this album from residing at the top tier of their discography, it’s unlikely that High on Fire’s eighth studio album will disappoint the band’s faithful, particularly since it’s home to some of the fastest tracks they’ve laid down to date. Moreover, the punishing theatrics of “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil” is a very welcome addition to the band’s oeuvre, and hopefully, its ingenuity is a glimpse of the where these road warriors will go, creatively-speaking, in the future. Then again, they might follow their forebears in Motörhead by hammering out variations on a theme for the rest of their days, and if they do, there’ll still be a baying audience for it.