High on Fire, Luminiferous: Flying Above the Rift

high on fire luminiferous

It is a fun coincidence of timing that High on Fire‘s seventh album, Luminiferous (released by eOne Metal), should arrive — a summer blockbuster in its own right — just one month after George Miller‘s film Mad Max: Fury Road, since the two works would seem to share so much in common. Not merely in their thrust or in the pummel and whirlwind they’re able to conjure when reaching a similar maximum velocity, but in the ability to balance the real and the unreal while doing so. Luminiferous is High on Fire‘s second collaboration with producer Kurt Ballou, and like the movie, its nine tracks/54 minutes are executed with minimal trickery. Real stunts. Sure, Des Kensel‘s toms and snare on second cut “Carcosa” or the second half of closer “The Lethal Chamber,” or that of “The Sunless Years,” or in the midsection of “The Dark Side of the Compass” have a war-drum sound to them, huge, thudding, but it’s not inorganic in its construction.

And while both movie and album can seem superficially at times to be sacrificing all else for the sake of the sheer badassery of their impact, High on Fire‘s latest is actually among their more progressive works, following 2012’s adrenaline-pumped stunner De Vermis Mysteriis (review here) — their first with Ballou — with more of a flow from one song into the next and likewise fluid shifts between tempos and flourishes of melody and emotion on “The Falconist” or “The Cave” to go along with all-out thrashfests like “Slave the Hive” or the penultimate title-track, which is sandwiched between the two longest tracks here, “The Cave” and “The Lethal Chamber,” both of which stand as evidence of the desire from High on Fire — guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike (also Sleep) and bassist Jeff Matz, in addition to Kensel — to continue the creative development that’s been there to hear all along throughout their 17-year run for anyone willing to look under the sometimes-masking layer of raw brutality.

Even if Luminiferous is better constructed and more dynamic overall than was De Vermis Mysteriis, its opening salvo is still geared toward finding out how big of a crater it can make. Opener “The Black Plot” has its hook but is among the record’s nastier thrashers, Pike following his guitar and taking a somewhat surprising melodic turn in the chorus vocally as Kensel and Matz hold together a gallop that’s as much of a signature move as High on Fire has. The subsequent “Carcosa,” which tops seven minutes and sets up the aforementioned later epics, dials back its pacing somewhat, but seems to use its extra time to make every forceful blow count. Vicious tonally but ultimately propelled by its drums, it finds Pike as the snarling conjurer atop the storm, a swinging progression well locked in by the two-minute mark carrying into a bigger groove that’s bound to test the tensile strength of many necks in its presence and which returns shortly as the bed for another a mix-consuming, about-to-fly-off-the-rails solo, though its ultimately Kensel‘s war drums that hold the day.

Matz, who joined the band in 2006 before they made what has become something of a defining statement with 2007’s Death is this Communion and is by now their longest-tenured bassist, has his moment in the midsection of “The Sunless Years,” stepping forward to match a guitar solo from Pike and continuing to hold attention even as the track moves back to its verse, offset earlier by a hook that recalls the marauding “Serums of Laio” from the last album before a slowdown once more brings Kensel‘s plodding drums to the front — though Matz gets his fills in there as well. Three tracks in, already High on Fire have given three different looks, but “Slave the Hive” (also released as a Scion-sponsored single in 2013) and “The Falconist” show there’s more to be delivered, the former their shortest inclusion at 3:50 and offering a thrashing viciousness rivaled only by “Luminiferous” itself on the second LP, and the latter an inevitably slower roll with the album’s strongest chorus, more choice low end, and Pike‘s boldest vocal in the chorus, “You can see my fly above the rift/And watch me dive and play the risks/You can see me flying/Watch me diving/From the wrist of the falconist,” as gorgeous and apt a metaphor as any I could imagine for the course of his career and stage presence both, though whether or not that’s what he’s going for, I couldn’t say.

high on fire (Photo by Jimmy Hubbard)

The centerpiece of the offering for good reason, “The Falconist” is as bold a step in the direction of accessibility as High on Fire have taken, and the emotion driving it feels genuine even as its harder-hitting edge is maintained toward an ending solo that seems to want to move back into one last chorus but cuts short in the end and makes way for “The Dark Side of the Compass,” the apocalyptic tension of which finds release in a chorus of lockstep lead guitar and vocals, the execution no less tight than anything before or after it, but memorable and all the more so for not being an immediate afterthought to “The Falconist” preceding. Feedback fades quickly to end “The Dark Side of the Compass” and makes way to the subdued opening of “The Cave,” a meandering guitar line topping Matz‘s bass and opening quick to an almost-psychedelic vibe, watery vocals and all. High on Fire‘s “Planet Caravan?” Maybe, but if they’re doing it, they’re doing it in their own style, the track exploding into a rolling, lumbering hook before receding again.

That tradeoff moves back and forth through the first half of its 7:40 run, the third verse and weightier chorus moving into a longer section playing off the latter before a cut to the bass and vocal line sets up the final, solo-topped push, the bass and guitar bookending with a last quiet measure, seemingly as much to lead into “Luminiferous” as out of “The Cave” itself, the immediate punch of the titular cut not to be understated even if it takes a about a minute for the verse to be revealed in its full, whipping fury. One could only accuse “Luminiferous” of being in High on Fire‘s wheelhouse, but as they have on many occasions before, they burn that wheelhouse to the ground, and where prior title-tracks have had more sprawl à la “The Cave” or subsequent closer “The Lethal Chamber” — thinking of 2010’s Snakes for the Divine (review here), the aforementioned Death is this Communion, or 2005’s Blessed Black Wings — “Luminiferous” is a turn in itself, being shorter and more outwardly intense in the tradition of “Surrounded by Thieves” from their 2002 sophomore outing of the same name. Fitting somehow for a band subtly, continuously pushing their own boundaries that they should round out with one of their longest songs.

At a long-fading but fully-used 8:50, “The Lethal Chamber” is second only to “Master of Fists” from High on Fire‘s 2000 debut, The Art of Self-Defense, in runtime — that cut being the band’s only one to-date topping 10 minutes — but its impact is made more in how they use that time than that they use it at all. Lurching groove and drum stomp in a timing nod not entirely dissimilar from Sleep‘s “The Clarity” take hold early, but of course the vibe is entirely High on Fire‘s own. They carry that march to and through a solo at the halfway point, some churn providing quick transition amid a flurry of toms from Kensel, who after making his presence felt throughout the entire tracklist leaves yet more bruises following a quick stop at 5:45, his hard-hitting approach and Matz‘s bassline serving as the foundation from which Pike launches an airier finale solo, the fadeout arriving less like the band are finishing out and more like the listener is leaving the strange, dark, storming world in which the end of “The Lethal Chamber” will still be taking place after we’re gone.

More about its reach than its catchiness, as were the likes of “The Black Plot,” “The Sunless Years,” or “The Falconist,” “The Lethal Chamber” underscores the multifaceted approach that High on Fire are able to take as they push closer to their 20th year, and one of Luminiferous‘ most satisfying aspects proves to be how naturally they seem to be able to balance an ongoing creative progression with trademark thickened thrash that, here as ever, sounds like it’s sitting on top of 7,000 pounds of nitro-boosted war machine. Hands down one of the year’s best, for its blinding turns, the obvious chemistry of the trio who made it, its songwriting and the lingering sense of work still to be done when it’s over.

High on Fire, “The Falconist”

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3 Responses to “High on Fire, Luminiferous: Flying Above the Rift”

  1. Mike H says:

    Fan-fucking-tastic review. Stoked to pick this up after work today. This band has yet to disappoint (alright…maybe just a little with Snakes for the Divine).

  2. Milk K. Harvey says:

    Oooooh. It’s here.

  3. […] reading: THE OBELISK | REVIEW | High on Fire – Luminiferous (Courtesy of JJ Koczan / The […]

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