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High on Fire - Death Is This Communion

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Artist: High on Fire

Album: Death Is This Communion

Label: Relapse

Review date: Sep. 27, 2007

In metal, you don't get any more points for picking apart government propaganda than you do writing a song about the Yeti. Subgenres splinter as quickly as in dance music, but novelty isn't a premium. Those shifts in style don't go away; adherents continue on - sometimes faithfully, sometimes splintering again. All that matters is bringing the rock. If Metallica could come up with another record that really crushed, all those years of whining and lawsuits and sentimental moaning would be overlooked. Nordic creeps and doddering old alcoholics and rich kids from South America can earn equal respect. It doesn't matter how it's accomplished. The mandate: crush.

So there's no incentive for a metal musician to change. Matt Pike has changed over the years, though, and it hasn't hurt at all. His reputation was built on loping, stoned riffing in the band Sleep, and when High On Fire started nine years ago, it retained some of that, if in a slightly higher gear.

On Death Is This Communion, the band’s fourth album, that green haze has dissipated. Pike’s guitar is razor cold throughout, and, unlike past efforts, it’s not always large and in charge. Instrumentals and unconnected passages shake up the main songs with Middle Eastern textures and analog keyboard. The title track's throbbing dread is built around Des Kensel’s drums. Mellotron strings add flourish to the longer numbers with stricter, grinding beats. Not exactly King Crimson, but definitely more ornament then they've ever applied.

Maybe we should’ve seen this coming. Last year, Pike took on a side project, Kalas, where he didn't play guitar at all – he sang. Now, Pike's vocals on Communion have become more than just a throaty counterpoint. They’re where the green haze went, scorched and resin-caked and every bit as authoritative as the other instruments.

In that sense, Death Is This Communion pulls High on Fire in a couple directions. Pike's penchant for experimentation crests in the middle, where there's a stretch of songs with the wobbly swing of Motorhead's "we're a rock 'n' roll band" bits. ("Headhunter,” a drum solo that sits squarely at the album’s center, could be stretched into infinitum and never get old.) But reinvention steps to the side on tracks like "Waste of Tiamat," which references the Mesopotamian goddess of chaos, and "Rumors of War,” a punk-metal song that stands a chance of being one of the best ever, up there with the likes of "Ace of Spades" and "City Baby Attacked by Rats" and "Negative Creep.”

Communion producer Jack Endino actually captured "Negative Creep" lo those many years ago, and the godfather of grunge likely played a part in this album's subtle surprises. But, ultimately, those subtleties are skin deep. No one man is going to alter the essence of this band. As long as there are war pigs in need of slaughter, Pike will sharpen the axe. High on Fire know how they got to the top of the mountain. They are fully aware of the mandate.

By Ben Donnelly

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