High On Fire – Death Is This Communion

High On Fire - Death Is This CommunionHigh On FireDeath Is This Communion (Relapse)

More than anything, you have to admire High On Fire frontman Matt Pike’s stoic dedication to the stoner metal ethos. His work within this Oakland power trio essentially is a continuation of the formula he already helped perfect during Sleep, a band who’s sludge is revered enough that they’re rightfully cited as one of the most important metal bands in the past quarter century.

Add that body of work along with the four albums he’s done with High On Fire, and you’ve got nearly two decades of fairly devoted shit-hot magma rock.

Don’t think for a moment that Pike is a dimwitted stoner still trying to work the mojo of a genre that’s not too kind towards middle ground or middle aged. Instead, he’s tackled his mid-thirties with an almost religious devotion to his craft and a keen eye on maintaining an underground credibility. There’s something very calculated about hiring Steve Albini to man the boards for their last album, Blessed Black Wings, while tapping legendary Seattleite Jack Endino to direct their latest effort.

But when you think about it, Endino may have been the best choice ever when they started making Death Is This Communion. He’s helped harness some of the best Sabbath worshippers in the Northwest and it wouldn’t surprise me if Pike has a lot of Endino produced records in his own collection.

So yeah, the match-up delivers: Endino’s work on Death Is This Communion is a great compliment to the band’s musicianship and vision. It’s the band’s finest document, and one that newcomers should begin with.

At the same time, the pairing also serves as a reminder to an era when there were at least a dozen or so bands that mined the same sludge fields. High On Fire has the luxury of having a fairly substantial grip on the whole smart man’s larghetto rock, so it stands out to an extent. But for those who remember grunge’s halcyon days, you can probably name about five or six bands that sounded strikingly similar to High On Fire, with one obvious difference: Page’s outfit is refined, intentional, and occasionally unmemorable.

Even though the land that they navigate is full of additional exploration, H.O.F. focus all of their implements on plowing through Saint Vitus grooves with a top soil of Celtic Frost lyricism. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly been done before and it certainly won’t win them an audience much wider than what Saint Vitus or Celtic Frost experienced during their own formative years.

On rare occasions, namely the first minute of “Cyclopian Scape” and the entire two-and-a-half minute passage “Khanrad’s Wall,” in which Pike uses a Middle Eastern chord progression to create a nifty acoustic landscape, the band displays brief hints of growth and experimentation. “DII” even puts a mellotron to good use underneath the relentless ‘chug-chug-chug’ of Pike’s guitar.

But these diversions are the exceptions and not the rule, which is a polite way of saying that it’s another High On Fire album when it could have been a High On Fire statement, one that shakes the genre from its constraints just like Pike did with Sleep’s Dopesmoker.

The riffage is incredible and it’s mixed high enough that you can almost overlook the fact that Pike’s vocal duties carry an enormous weight but very little in terms of real power. Think Lemmy Kilminster with, perhaps, even fewer fluctuations in his register, and you then get an idea of how fatigued I felt after listening to Death Is This Communion from start to finish.

Okay. We get it. High On Fire is as primal and devoted as ever, but usually by the fourth album we’re seeing some evidence of growth and challenge. It’s time for them to breathe some new life into drop-D deconstructionism because there are moments when Death Is This Communion sounds like rigor mortis is setting in.

4 thoughts on “High On Fire – Death Is This Communion”

  1. Signor Totale,

    You seem…experienced, shall we say?

    What are the top three or five stoner rock records I should own?!!

    By the way, good review. “Smart man’s larghetto rock”–nice! I have High on Fire’s last one and my complaint is the same as yours for this: the vocals seem afterthought-ish and monotonous, remarkably little musical imagination. That’s “smart” metal’s achilles heel.

  2. Thank you.

    1.)Saint Vitus-Born Too Late

    2.)Masters Of Reality-Sunrise On The Sufferbus

    3.)Kyuss-Welcome To Sky Valley

    4.)Monster Magnet-Spine Of God


    6.)Queens Of The Stone Age-Queens Of The Stone Age

    7.)Electric Wizard-Dopethrone

  3. Todd – good review and good list. Kudos on picking QOTSA’s debut over R; I always preferred their debut myself despite R’s genius. And Sky Valley over Blues… ballsy of you, sir. Holy Mountain’s gotta be on the list, although I appreciate the choice of Dopesmoker since it really defines ‘magnum opus.’ I would also add to your list some less-essential yet still crucial albums:

    1) Clutch – Clutch… or Blast Tyrant

    2) Eternal Elysium – Spiritualized D

    3) Faith No More – The Real Thing (okay it’s not stoner metal, but it’s pure genius anyway)

    4) Acrimony – Tumuli Shroomaroom

    5) Spirit Caravan – Jug Fulla Sun

    man I could go on with this all day… must stop. Oh and the Sword’s debut. Oh and anything by Boris. Oh and Bongzilla. Yeah, stopping now.

  4. Nice call on the Boris. And I just love the entire trio-suite thing of Sky Valley and the idea, execution and fallout of Dopespoker is just supremely noteworthy.

    But yeah, it was hard sticking with barabajagal’s request of 3-5. The ideal thing would be to grab him, drag him down to my basement, get him baked and play him records all night long. Then I’d blame him for smoking pot in the house when my wife came down to lecture me about the smell.

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