I guess the first question here is, “Did High on Fire actually ever need to make a comeback?” Here’s how I see it: After signing with E1 in 2009 following a long tenure on Relapse Records, the Oakland, CA, trio released Snakes for the Divine (review here) in 2010. Song-wise, you could hardly call the album a dip in quality from what Matt Pike (guitar/vocals), Des Kensell (drums) and Jeff Matz (bass) brought to bear on 2007′s thunderous Death is this Communion, but the difference was in the production and presentation of the album. The songs were as thrashing as ever, but all of a sudden, they were also irrevocably, undeniably clean. And if there’s one thing High on Fire had never sounded before, it’s clean.
During the album cycle for Snakes for the Divine, I recall catching a High on Fire show in NYC and thinking that the band were done with the underground entirely, and that in time, strong>Snakes would be the turning point when they went from a visceral experience, influential even as they were still driving towards some yet-unknown creative apex, to a watered down and more accessible version of what they once were. Doubtless they could pull off such a transition and grow a wider audience for themselves, but for the fans who’d been with them since their earlier days when Pike, began to feel out this brash new musical direction after ending his time in Sabbathian legends Sleep, it wouldn’t ever be the same again.
That’s just not the way it turned out. At all.
With this year’s De Vermis Mysteriis (review here), High on Fire didn’t so much return to form as they did break the mold, smashing it on a sharply executed bed of thickened thrash extremity. The songs managed to capture every potential appeal of Snakes for the Divine – whether it was the opening catchiness of “Serums of Laio,” the rhythmic intensity of “Madness of an Architect,” searing turns of “Spiritual Rites” or the epic storytelling of powerful closing duo “Romulus and Remus” and “Warhorn” — and coupled with the production of Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou at his Godcity Studios in Salem, Massachusetts, they brimmed with tonal largesse and a sense of danger that hinted at a method behind High on Fire’s madness that had never been there before. To put a point on it, De Vermis Mysteriis didn’t just happen by mistake.
Somewhere along the line, the band decided that their sixth album was indeed going to be a turn, not to a more commercial direction but instead away from it, and while the rough edges and post-stonerisms of early records The Art of Self-Defense (2000) and Surrounded by Thieves (2002) were gone, the progression came across naturally, not contrived. High on Fire were tighter, meaner than ever, and the songs the wrote, the presentation and the vague-but-characteristic narrative showed that. In the best case scenario of any long-running outfit’s latest album, everything they’d done before felt like it was leading up to the newest triumph.
All wasn’t well in the band, and dropping off the touring Mayhem festival this summer, Pike entered rehab. It was a move that significantly derailed their momentum, given the breadth of new audience they would’ve reached on the road alongside the likes of Slipknot and Slayer, but when High on Fire returned to the road for a headlining tour this fall alongside extreme metal stalwarts Goatwhore as well as Primate and Lo-Pan (review here) just wrapping up this week, the difference in the band was readily apparent. This too was a kind of comeback, even if the span of time was relatively short. They were focused, driven and delivering a performance that matched the severity of the album while also showcasing a conscious mastery of their environment — i.e. the stage — that even at their most crazed, they’d never had before.
Where High on Fire go from here is anyone’s best guess. European headlining dates set for February 2013 will lead into festival spots at Roadburn and doubtless others, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get another shot at Mayhem next summer — but what matters is that whatever heights High on Fire reach in the next several years, they will have done so on their own terms and by continuing to push themselves forward creatively. They will arrive not bowing to pressure to be something they’ve never been, but as the conquering marauders, axes in hand and blood dripping from their mouths. Nothing could be truer to their spirit.
Tags: California, De Vermis Mysteriis, E1 Music, High on Fire, High on Fire De Vermis Mysteriis, Matt Pike, Oakland