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The idea behind High on Fire is simple: Take two of the most popular sounds from metal’s early history and put ’em together. And really, what headbanger worth his back-patched denim could resist a band that’s figured out how to sync Black Sabbath’s pot-slackened sludge with Motörhead’s amphetamized rumble?
Unit-shifting concerns aside, the merger makes sense coming from Matt Pike. Before starting the Oakland-based High on Fire in 1998, the singer-guitarist fronted Sleep, a power trio that gained underground notoriety for its recombinant take on the Sabbath legacy. Sleep’s best and final album, 1999’s major-funded Jerusalem, was a one-song, hourlong stretch of Iommi-ain’t-slow-enough drone coupled with a religiofuturistic narrative that included some of the most stoned lyrics ever belched onto magnetic tape. Here’s a sample, in case you nodded off or anything: “Marijuanaut escapes Earth to cultivate/Grow room is church temple of the new stoner breed.”
Unfortunately, High on Fire has never been as experimental or as Burroughsesque as Sleep—a possible explanation for the fact that the trio has received positive ink in not only Spin and GQ, but also the New York Times. But what the band lacks in audacity, it attempts to make up for in niche-transcendence. Boasting a clearer, more mainstream sound than either of its murky predecessors, High on Fire’s third and latest full-length, Blessed Black Wings, seldom resembles the more subgenre-bound discs on the band’s label, “extreme music” indie Relapse. This is metal, dammit, and no other descriptor is required.
That’s because the Steve Albini–recorded album’s extremity lies in its intensity, not its hyphenation. Album opener “Devilution,” a song Pike calls a “George W. Bush fuckin’ lullaby,” is as good an example of High on Fire’s old-school style as anything in the band’s catalog. Pike and bassist Joe Preston take what would be an excellent slow-tempo stoner riff and hitch it to drummer Des Kensel’s vortical, hell-bent percussion, yielding needles-in-the-red rawk that’s as fun and as familiar as the glowering demon on the cover. Pike’s vocals, unsurprisingly, come off like a 50-50 blend of Ozzy and Lemmy as he strains to be heard over the din: “Snake’s tongue, lies sung, master of disguise, poison conqueror/War torn, plague born, live the ancient wrath, executioner.”
“Devilution”-type songs dominate Wings (“Cometh Down Hessian” and “Silver Back,” to name but two). And yet, even when High on Fire slows down to “Iron Man” speed (“The Face of Oblivion,” “To Cross the Bridge”), the band seldom resembles one of those “A Tribute to” nostalgia acts. You can credit some of that to Pike, whose mode of revisionism is basically borrowing the best from the best. But what really makes even Wings’ weaker tracks better than run-of-the-mill is attributable to Kensel, who gives the band’s most unhurried tempos a palpable sense of urgency—not to mention density. The drummer is constantly pushing the beat, filling up space with aggressive tom hits—which forces Pike and Preston to fight hard for every low-register chord and string-bending solo. Pike’s punkified title-track break, in particular, is all about just keeping up.
Energy aside—and, yes, every song on the album feels like a first take—it’s still hard to get behind a fusion rooted so deeply in the past. In fact, it’s probably best not to apply the F-word to High on Fire at all: From psych-pop to jazz-rock to electro-whatever, fusion has always been a way to push a style forward. And the truth is that Blessed Black Wings is, in many ways, as backward-leaning as the warmongering Texan its first cut seeks to critique. Pike & Co. no doubt think that conservatism ain’t cool in the White House. So why would it be OK on a metal record?
New Seattle bass-and-drums duo Big Business is also enamored with ’70s heft—an affinity easily predictable by those familiar with frontman Jared Warren. The bassist-vocalist, a self-described writer of “catchy choruses and really triumphant hooks,” once played a lot of that sort of thing in the underrated Karp and the underachieving Tight Bros From Way Back When, two Olympia, Wash., bands that combined punk rock with fun-loving, Nixon-era protometal. (Think MC5, Blue Oyster Cult, Grand Funk Railroad—basically any white guys with ’Fros.)
Big Business is similarly motivated and hooky, albeit somewhat less orthodox. On its debut full-length, Head for the Shallow, the two-piece for the most part eschews guitar and foregrounds the bass à la avant-core duos such as Lightning Bolt and Ruins. Of course, the dearth of six-string hardly matters when the band cranks up, as they do throughout Shallow. From opener “O.G.” to the closing “Off Off Broadway,” Warren sounds like both a guitarist and bassist as he hurls chunks of overdistorted riffage at drummer Coady Willis.
Willis, for his part, is up for the barrage: The former Murder City Devils member hammers at his kit as if every song were the big kick-over-the-drums, shove-the-ax-in-the-ceiling finale. At a recent show at the Warehouse Next Door, Warren and Willis bested the excellent Kylesa, a crusty metal band twice their size, thanks in no small measure to the sheer muscularity of Willis’ playing. This brutishness, however, is less impressive on record, where a lack of dynamic range can come across as one-dimensionality—perhaps why the duo chose to include some low-in-the-mix electric guitar here (“Easter Romantic”) and there (“Eis Hexe”).
But Big Business’ best defense against listener fatigue is Warren’s grime-piercing voice, which sounds neither punk nor metal. Unlike his barking underground contemporaries, the guy actually hits high notes—and holds on to to some of them for a good, long time. On the dramatically drop-tuned “White Pizazz,” Warren—possibly in reference to Big Business’ potential audience—croons “Completeleee/White!/Completeleee /White!” At least one prominent rock critic has damned the singer with faint praise, writing that his Tight Bros vocalizing made for a passable Bon Scott impersonation. And it’s true that Warren’s near-falsetto might have seemed like pastiche in the bar-band context of that group. But against Big Business’ arty roar, it sounds almost progressive.
Of course, even if Big Business were as unprogressive as High on Fire, the act’s minimal lineup would still signify obscurantism, a reality to which the band seems resigned. (“I aspire to pay my rent,” Warren said in a recent interview.) But despite the indie-trendiness of the duo’s division of labor, its aesthetic is relatively accessible: big riffs, real tunes, a vocalist who doesn’t make you reach for the lyric sheet. That may not save Big Business from the art-rock ghetto, although it should. After all, a healthy hunk of Head for the Shallow is every bit as catchy and triumphant as Warren claims.CP