All heavy metal begins with Black Sabbath, but if there is any metal subgenre that stayed loyal to the original intent of that band, it is the embattled niche known as "doom metal." Slowing the tempo to a plod, turning the volume up, and tuning the guitars down to a register lower than even Sabbath's Tony Iommi, doom metal has survived through bands such as Witchfinder General, Trouble, Candlemass, the Obsessed, Saint Vitus, and the earlier, slower work of the Melvins. If there is a maximum capacity of emotion that can be crammed into one down-stroked chord, it's found among the ranks of doom metal.
When the 1990s hit, this small, largely unconnected scene of riff-stretchers included Cathedral, Eyehategod, and Earth and would soon birth (and then often become confused with) the childishly titled stoner-rock movement. The first band worthy of that appellation was Sleep, who titled their 1991 debut Volume One in tribute to Sabbath's Volume Four and their sophomore album, Sleep's Holy Mountain, likely in reference to Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 psycho-theological brain-melt of a movie.
Keeping with the odd major-label moves of the '90s, Sleep were signed to London Records in 1995 for a third album, using the opportunity to promptly issue a middle finger to all expectations. The result was the one-track, one-riff, religiously inclined, pot-soaked Jerusalem, which, aside from the Boredoms' Pop Tatari, may be the most commercially nonviable record to ever sport a major-label imprint. Seeing that they were dealing with one 52-minute "song" that the band refused to tour in support of, London gave Sleep its walking papers but not before promotional copies of Jerusalem made the streets. Copies were traded and sold on eBay like mad until another label, the Music Cartel, released a legit version in 1999. (It was again released under its original, unsurprising title, Dopesmoker, in 2003.)
On the cusp of this turmoil, Sleep disbanded in 1998, with two of its three members choosing to live in monasteries. This left guitarist Matt Pike, who swiftly assembled High On Fire, creating what may stand as the most powerful power trio to ever breathe air. High On Fire take the most impenetrable sonics of doom-metal, ramp up the velocity, and wad the songs up into a tight study of muddy thrash.
At least, it used to be muddy. The band's 2000 debut, The Art of Self Defense, and the 2002 follow-up, Surrounded by Thieves, made one wonder how a band could be so loud, so forceful, so metal, and yet so murky. On these two records, the bass is bowel-voiding, the drums sound as if they are pounding behind 10 mattresses and a wall, and the occasional fret-board-skating solo barely peeps out of the ridiculous distortion of the main focus, which is, of course, the riffs. This was thanks to producer Billy Anderson. Having been responsible for the churning fidelity of mid-period Neurosis, the Melvins' Houdini, and Cathedral's Endtyme, the man is no stranger to the low end of things. He also produced all three Sleep albums.
This past summer, mainstay bassist George Rice was replaced with one of experimental metal's lightning rods: Joe Preston of Thrones (and ex-Melvins). This move was succeeded by recordings with perfect-man-for-the-job producer Steve Albini, which resulted in Blessed Black Wings, scheduled for release in February by Relapse Records. Albini brings clarity to High On Fire's assault, allowing all the instruments breathing room and complementing Pike's songwriting almost to a fault. Whereas previous High On Fire albums stuck to exploding a Sabbath-meets-Motörhead mix into absurd decibel/distortion levels, Blessed Black Wings suggests that Pike may be listening to Slayer. A lot of Slayer.
Album-opener "Devilution" sounds like a cousin to "War Ensemble" -- the whopper that began Slayer's crack masterpiece, 1990's Seasons in the Abyss. The sludge remains in the grooves, but this album is like hearing Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation after having only known the previous Sister or seeing Robert Altman's Nashville after M*A*S*H: It's already established that the artists are great; now they've become something else. And despite the Slayer-love, Blessed Black Wings is the most accessible High On Fire record to date. Once-latent tunefulness plays a larger role with more diverse vocals (instead of Pike's normal melodic roar) and through-the-roof guitar crescendos. This tactic could be compared favorably to the dash of harmony found on Mastodon's latest, the paranoid watershed Leviathan.
Also like Mastodon, High On Fire have always fiddled with fantastical themes, albeit of the medieval, hyperbolic metal variety, with songs titled "Speedwolf," "The Yeti," "Thraft of Caanan," "Brother in the Wind," "Anointing of Seer," and "Sons of Thunder." On the new album, don't ask me what "Cometh Down Hessian" means, other than being a hilarious title.
Since its inception, High On Fire has toured with acts as dissimilar as Shadows Fall and Jucifer, but it's no accident that they co-headlined an extensive 2003 European tour with the aforementioned Mastodon -- the Outkast of extreme metal. Along with Pelican, Isis, the Haunted, and, at times, Lamb of God, Mastodon and High On Fire are among the bands transforming real heavy metal into a field that's innovative while open to crossover appeal.
Sacrilege it may be to say, but High On Fire can attain a heaviness that's greater than Mastodon, and, live, I will assure you that they are louder. While Mastodon embrace a wider range of metal influences, it could be said that you get one thing with High On Fire: your ass kicked by true metal. •