Heavy is such a simple, enduring term, built on certain elemental chords or rhythm patterns but able to expand in as many (and more meaningful) ways as "happy" (the antonym of heavy), all of which tug me toward troubled inarticulate loners who sublimate their neuroses in vintage-amplifier purchases, and all of whom I love as I would blood relatives I had never met. High On Fire are accepted universally—Pluto to Saturn—as a heavy band, as heavy as Black Sabbath—but really more manic—or Metallica—too credible, but lots closer if it's early Metallica—or Motörhead—wilder guitar, crazier lyrics—or Slayer—oh yes, those drums are Slayer—but enjoying instead a heaviness of their own, a considered heaviness that welcomes endless exploration. Much like a tar pit. They are a very old kind of heavy.
Metal Mike Saunders once said that his band the Angry Samoans were an inverse of Black Sabbath—open space where Sabbath was dense, short and sharp while Sabbath could stretch for minutes, a dynamic of compression, not expansion—and read that way, High On Fire could be an inverse of Sabbath too, especially on last year's Blessed Black Wings (their most recent on Relapse), an album not so much crushing as it is crisp, or crushing because it is crisp—that Steve Albini production blows years of smoke out of the room. It's not an easy heavy sound, like something like old-timies High Tide or the JPT Scare Band, where an overdriven bass riff eats the edges off every other instrument—there, the roughness and sludge are the thrill; like a horror movie, it's the monster you never clearly see, scarier than what you'd get if some special effects guy rubbered up a fishface with fangs. That's Hitchcock heavy—a good low-budget tradition, heaviness by implication, suggestion and a little misdirection. Cheap thrills—one of my favorite types, don't get me wrong.
But High On Fire high-priest heavy-rock-dom (and they do) because they don't hide anything—they don't cheap out; they don't slop a lot of bleed (another horror movie trick) around between tracks and let that stand in for scary. On Wings, every nut, bolt and orange glowing tube (inside a Green amp) gets a molecule moment of sound to itself; on Wings, you can hear everything at once, as disorienting and even slightly sickening a headphone session as Sunn 0))): that's what we call Hadean heavy, after the geologic time period so ancient and unknown that rocks hadn't even been formed on the earth yet. The oldest known rock on Earth dates back to 4,100,000,000 years ago, and High On Fire philosophically predates that—primordial ocean music, with every lone handful of water clear but every droplet together solid black down for miles. Or they are heavy in the other Hadean way, like Beelzebub—the lord of the flies, the accumulated weight (and sound) of 4,100,000,000 tiny buzzing bugs. I don't see how metal gets in the metaphor except for the rare Judas Priest cover—this feels gigantic, intricate and old. Naturally, they have a song about Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," the story where cocky meddling humans awaken an evil from beyond time and chaos ensues, etc.—that's a great genesis idea and much better for this band (which rose from the garage where High On Fire's singer Matt Pike stopped contemplating suicide and started playing guitar again after his titanic Sleep broke up) than something like let-there-be-light. High On Fire sings more often about fire than light, anyway—light came from fire, back in the Hadean days, comets and volcanoes glowing red into black. Kind of a heavy visual, but it's the one the record came with.
Pike and current Firemen Des Kensel (drums) and Joe Preston (new bass player, recently of Thrones/Sunn 0))))/Melvins) are viciously dedicated guys, Pike digging ditches—just like they warned you in school would happen if you didn't put down the guitar and learn some algebra—during the off-season and using the extra muscles to macho out the band even further—on Wings, Pike's nerves sing better than he does—and keep High On Fire always at the limits of human endurance, something most players don't feel like suffering anymore (when does Interpol ever break a sweat? Only in the waiting room at the free clinic). And if there's a field that keeps the 4,100,000,000 flies of High On Fire in tight formation, it comes from Pike, whose stoner-gnostic vocals (downer imagery of a doomed "blood-lit planet," etc.) leave the same sort of strained, desperate marks on High On Fire's impenetrable songs that you might find on the inside of a coffin lid. (First two words on Wings: "Man's done.") Actually, though, that's the most accessibly human part: this angry ditch-digger, buried alive in his own band. Or maybe human is too happy a word. Said Pike once, when asked about his songs: "The details aren't the important part. The important part is that you have a skeleton."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
HIGH ON FIRE WITH GOATWHORE AND WATCH THEM DIE AT ALEX'S BAR, 2913 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 434-8292; WWW.ALEXSBAR.COM. SAT., 9 P.M. $10. 21+.