Friday, December 19, 2008

High on Fire: Death is This Communion (Relapse, 2007)

"Speaking the words of the sorcerer's tongue/ No one can stop what's already begun/ Follow the footsteps and unlock the door/ The giant you face has awakened."

As you can tell from the general nature of the entries on Act Surprised, I'm a big fan of sunny pop hooks and major-key chords. Gimme catchy any day and I'll be happy. A shimmering verse-chorus-verse hung on a king-sized riff? Sold, friend.

But sometimes I'm looking to get my head rocked clean off my effing shoulders. I wanna be pummeled and punished, mercilessly blasted by thrash-tempo double-bass kicks, distorted bass lines, and relentlessly drop-tuned, palm-muted, Gibson-played and Sunn-amplified shredding. And when that mood strikes, I know I can always turn to High on Fire's 2007 metal masterwork Death is This Communion (produced ably by grunge and indie maestro Jack Endino) to satisfy my dark desires.

High on Fire are Matt Pike on guitar and vocals, Des Kensel on drums, and Jeff Matz on bass. Pike was in the legendary doom/stoner metal outfit Sleep before founding High on Fire. If you've never heard Sleep and have any interest in high-caliber high-volume drone rock, you should check them out, especially Dopesmoker: that album -- which consists of one 70 minutes+ doom jam -- got them dropped from London Records, and was eventually released by Tee Pee in 2003. It's an exercise in bad vibes, but manages to be monumentally compelling by virtue of its inventiveness, weight, and sheer volume.

High on Fire, while often placed into the doom/stoner bin, spends a lot more time thrashing than droning, which is pretty awesome. Death is This Communion is High on Fire's fourth LP (their first, The Art of Self Defense, came out on Man's Ruin in 2002), and it's a powerful, marauding behemoth, refreshing in its aggressiveness and sheer energy. And as a power trio, Pike, Kensel, and Matz straight wail, utilizing breakneck, constantly shifting rhythms and lightning-quick solo runs to keep the listener spinning.
Add some lyrics drawn from the Dungeons and Dragons/H.P. Lovecraft well, and you've got some prime metal mayhem to deal with.

Fury Whip introduces the record with a savage opening salvo, an iron-heavy chord progression giving way to nimble up-tempo riffery and surging drums. Pike sings in a Cookie Monster-by-way-of-Lemmy growl, bellowing lines like, "Killed dead, splitting head, making sure the lion's fed/ Hanging by a thread that holds your life." "Fury Whip" is one of the best songs on the album, angry and grating, but also incredibly dynamic and hooky. It never lets up, leaving the listener bruised and breathless. Check out the molten solo at the 5:08 mark for proof of Pike's chops. Incredible.

"Death is This Communion" is another highlight, sheets of distortion riding a heavy martial beat. Kensel and Matz are the heroes of the track, their locked-in groove giving the song a chance to breath and saving it from oppressive claustrophobia. What could have been stifling becomes rousing and nearly buoyant. Rumors of War is the best cut on the album: the most Motorhead-esque entry, fueled by bad speed and cheap whisky, it blitzes forward on diesel wheels, a frenzied juggernaut boasting the best solos on the LP and the catchiest melody.

Though Death is This Communion is dominated by urgent aural assaults, High on Fire occasionally switch it up. "Headhunter" is a syncopated, polyrhythmic drum attack. "Khanrad's Wall" is an eastern-tinged rave up, and Cyclopian Scape begins with a delicate , folky passage lifted from Led Zeppelin III before descending into the churning, turbulent abyss. These ponies know more than one trick.

Sharp hooks and luminous melodies can get you pretty far in this world. But sometimes something heavy -- really heavy -- is the only thing that'll scratch the itch. So if you dig Sabbath, Slayer, Kyuss, the Melvins, Earth, Boris and the like, you should check out High on Fire and Death is This Communion. But buy a neck brace first.