Sometimes it’s just about impossible to ignore locale with certain bands. In spite of all the fantasy in their lyrics, High on Fire exude Oakland – that dangerous, rebellious and insolent ugly-sibling of San Francisco. Amidst all the blades, snakes, flames, wolves, thieves, plagues and various monsters that grace their album covers, one can make out that East Bay attitude, that cocksure mixture of deviance and defiance.
Of course, with regards to musical style, there is also that other important determining factor: the choice of poison. Just as the legendary thrash metal gods of the Bay Area represented their era of cocaine and speed, High On Fire typify the cannabis-haven of twenty-first century California.
The band’s latest offering, De Vermis Mysteriis, begins, like all of High On Fire’s albums with an immediate assault. No droning pleasantries here. The pace is relentless for the first three tracks and you’d be forgiven for wondering how the band are categorized as stoner-metal.
Then, out of the blue, a bit of Sleep-esque droning introduces “Madness of an Architect.” The thumping toms certainly belong to High On Fire’s repertoire, but the distilled pace of Matt Pike’s riff provides a twisted respite. In fact, while High On Fire are known for their aggression and speed (rare qualities in a band of stoners), they truly excel on the occasions when they slow down and let the guitars lull you into a hypnotic trance (“Bastard Samurai” and “Death is this Communion” are two recent examples).
Following on, High On Fire produce a rare instrumental piece, “Samsara,” proving that the revival of stoner-legends Sleep has had no small effect on Matt Pike. Nearly four minutes of guitar noodling pass by in the blink of an eye as Pike showcases his technical prowess.
The seven minute scorching centerpiece of the album, “King of Days,” once again slows down proceedings and provides one of those rare tracks where every aspect fits together perfectly. The vocals growl with an unearthly tone, you can’t imagine anyone holding onto a guitar that riffs so hot, and the rhythm section drives the whole ensemble forward like a cruel slave master. This is metal of the highest order, whereby you completely lose yourself to a song; where the word song doesn’t even do justice to the effect of the music.
It’s nice to see that tours with bigger-name acts (ie. supporting Metallica on a European tour) hasn’t dulled High On Fire’s edge whatsoever. In fact, with the band’s penchant for a slower pace and the much improved production courtesy of Converge’s Kurt Ballou, High On Fire have honed their blade to a frightening sharpness.
If Matt Pike and co. represent the sweaty grim of the East Bay, Pallbearer can’t hide their rural Arkansas roots. The recently coronated princes of doom-metal were tailor made for the crisp, clear, star-filled winter nights of the back-country, where awe and terror and disillusion blend seamlessly.
The only downside to Pallbearer’s debut album, Sorrow and Extinction, is that their first track, “Foreigner,” is so fucking good that you might just repeat it over and over and over again and never listen to the rest of the album.
Yes, this is the latest generation of American doom metal and boy is it a doozy. While comparisons with Black Sabbath abound (what white Southern male isn’t reared on Sabbath?), but doom has always taken matters to a whole other level of sludgery. The instrumentals from Pallbearer might churn and stumble as any typical doom band, but the crystalline, pitch-perfect vocals from Brett Campbell set them apart from their compatriots.
As many other critics have pointed out, the instrumentals themselves would have made this album great. But the memorable quality of Sorrow and Extinction arrives in one-off lyrical melodies from Campbell – those sort of moments you wait ten minutes for and then pass in the blink of eye. In fact, to completely oversimplify the album, Sorrow and Extinction is a dialectic of vocals and instrumentation. The lyrics and melodies are drenched with sorrow, just as the guitars and rhythm section rain down extinction.
If this album didn’t sound so completely despondent it might be a commercial hit, but of course it’s the despondency that is at the heart of doom-metal. Hipsters might give this a spin but I doubt Pallbearer will be playing the soundtrack of a television advert anytime soon.