See what I mean? That is metal. You can't really get more fucking metal than that. None more metal. But is it any good? And more to the point, does it compare to their earlier stuff, given that Mr Pike spent a fair while mucking about with the briefly reformed Sleep?
-------- 45 minutes, a couple of large Ardbegs and spliffs later --------
The answers? Yes. And fuck yes. It's fucking brilliant. For the first time, the whole album is fantastic, it doesn't sag for any of it's 45 minutes. Even Blessed Black Wings, which contains three of my favourite songs ever* and has a similar effect on me to good crystal meth, had it's low points, stodgy lulls that dragged parts of the album down and made it a merely great slab of muck as opposed to the outrageously scabrous earfuck it could have been.
Well ladies and gentlemen, this is that scabrous earfuck. Leaner, meaner, harder, faster, just more fucking savage. This gallops out of the trap and doesn't fucking let up, there's a lot less of the pissing about and interludes that marred Death Is This Communion for me, the first HOF album that just didn't, to these ears anyway, cohere into a whole, didn't flow from beginning to end. No such problem this time.
They've also solved the other problem with DITC, namely Jack Endino's slightly bloated, cumbersome mix**. The fast bits just didn't rampage like they should on the last LP, and Jeff Matz's bass didn't seem to mesh properly (in a sonic, not musical sense) with Des Kensal's battery (somehow the phrase 'drumming' doesn't quite do justice to the polyrhythmic artillery bombardment that DK regularly unleashes), just sounding a bit too flabby to deliver the kick to the solar plexus you expect from HOF. But, here, with Greg Fidelman producing, this is more live sounding than any album they've done with the possible exception of Blessed Black Wings, and, as you might expect from the man who produced Slayer's World Painted Blood, viciously taut. The drums just smack you round the face, and the bass sound, jesus it's good. A focused, growling drill of a sound, with a nice amount of sub that doesn't fuck with the mix, that becomes one with the kit because frequency-wise the two elements compliment each other as opposed to impinging on each others territories, the kit never swamps or rings over the bass, the bass never obscures the kit, and musically, Kensal and Matz are just fucking locked.
And equally one with the rhythm section is Matt Pike. The man is simply (high) on fire (sorry) here. Jaw-dropping, audacious, mental as ever, he ramps up the intensity and the speed to levels only glimpsed on a few tracks on each of the previous LPs and rips out those switchback riffs and loopy, careering solos like a man possessed with Matz and Kensal shadowing and playing off his every fucking move, each musician pushing and lifting the others onto another fucking plane. This just kills. At times they approach (pre Crack The Skye) Mastodon levels of bludgeoning complexity, but without drawing attention to how clever or difficult any of this shit is. Mastodon's overt technicality can often be their downfall, veering into unpleasant prog territory because it's so cleanly done, no matter how nasty they try to be, that you can't help but notice the virtuosity instead of the fucking music, but this never happens here. No other band could alter the time signature of a riff so many times in quick succession without it sounding clever clever, without losing the overall flow, because no other band does it with such simultaneous insouciance and overarching aggression or a sound this damn raw. This is rollercoaster metal, wrongfooting you without you knowing why until you go round again and again until you chuck.
And that brings us to the one thing that some people just can't get over with High On Fire. Matt Pike's vocals. Personally I love 'em, that ludicrous devolved almost incomprehensible proto-Lemmy roar of his just suits the primitive sophistication of this music perfectly, particularly given his lyrical penchant for magnificently stupid tales of demons, amulets and bloody war. I haven't seen the lyric sheet yet, but I could swear that he yells the words 'salty nimbus' at one point, and frankly, that moment alone is worth a few quid of yer hard earned. The track titles are, if anything, even more sublimely stupid than usual, Holy Flames Of The Fire Spitter, Bastard Samurai and (definitely a contender for most foolish track title of the decade) Ghost Neck being just three. What in the name of fuck makes you call a song Ghost Neck? What does it mean? I'm looking forward to getting the lyric sheet with the proper release a whole fucking lot, just so I can find out who wields the Frost Hammer.
So yeah, I quite like it.
*Devilution, Cometh Down Hessian and Silverback. There's way more of that vibe on this record than anything else they've done.
**I know, lots of people loved it, and preferred it to Steve Albini's diamond hard engineering on Blessed Black Wings, and those people are entitled to their opinion. Even if it is wrong.