Review: High on Fire at the Middle East | April 7, 2010

High on Fire play the Middle East

Ok, let's get it out of the way first: the merch was lacking. Lacking! When I go to see High On Fire, I expect to see, I dunno, hoodies with blue dragon-demons perched on snowy ledges and shit -- but even the stepped-up attention the band is getting due to their absolutely smoking new platter Snakes for the Divine (E1) isn't translating into an uptick in stoner fantasy merch. Bummer!

Oh, the music? Obviously, the band slayed. High On Fire strode onto the Mid East stage like phantom warlords, picking up their axes and instantly bludgeoning us with "Frost Hammer." In the low-ceilinged confines of the Mid East down, the mix was muddy and claustrophobic: it was probably one of the worst-sounding shows I've seen since ... uh, the last time I saw High On Fire at the Mid East down. But fuck it: Matt Pike's guitar sound is going to come across as sludgy and incoherent even if he had scientists re-calibrating the attenuation of the entire room and rebuilding the sound system out of crystal lasers. After a few songs, he cranked the knobs on his Soldano stack, and it was as if our ears were being coated with green slime.

On record, HoF can come across as relentless and one-dimensional, with everything running at full blast at all times. Live, they are no different, but there is something about being in the presence of such a bonecrushing steamroller that makes the unstopping carnage so appealing. Normally, this would be the part of the review where I would point out things like "The band's set leaned heavily on their new album" or something to that effect, but please: after being liquified by four or five of their epic tracks in a row, it was hard for my mind to get around to remembering things like song titles and what album is this from and that sort of thing. After 30 minutes or so of focused headbanging, you just kind of become zombified.

In this sense, HoF are almost more of a Ministry-esque industrial band: Pike's riffs are massive, but indistinct, like a constantly chugging metal-tipped scythe being dragged along the ground. Drummer Des Kensel plays like a one-man drum circle, with a thundering power that takes your breath away at certain moments. He never divides the tune up into segments of different beats and fills, the way most metal drummers do, and he also avoids the double bass drum trap that makes most metal into a rush to the finish. Instead, he just steadily plows each song into your skull with the determined pace of a man who just doesn't give a fuck. At this point, Kensel and Pike have been doing this together for almost 15 years, and the rhythmic interplay and telepathic ratcheting of tension and power the two execute is astounding.

Your typical HoF track eventually gets to a point where Kensel (and since 2006, ex-Zeke bassist Jeff Matz) have made a frothy mess of your ear-thingies and then Pike hits some pedals and holy fucking shit just throws the whole song off a cliff for a few minutes with his eternal yawning lead work. If he were a lesser guitarist and this were a lesser band, the consistent way that Pike leads every tune into a prolongued solo section would seem indulgent and lame; but he isn't and they aren't and basically when you go see HoF you are waiting for these moments to mow down your mind with laserbeams of awesomeness.

It also helps that Pike is a true metal warrior of the type you don't see that much anymore: amidst a clustered field of pasty dudes in black T-shirts of other bands composed of pasty dudes in black T-shirts of other bands, Pike is a true rock star. Six feet and change, long hair, sideburns, tattooed and shirtless, with crooked teeth and what people could politely refer to as a face that looks "lived-in," his stage presence alone lends an authenticity to his molten tales of roaming sludge-lords. In recent years he has added a few tricks to his stage moves arsenal, playing nutty hammer-ons with one hand while using the other to exhort the crowd to an even greater frenzy. Tonight at the Middle East, his energy was infectious, even to the typically arms-folded Cantabrigian contingent. It doesn't hurt too that his grizzled rock starpower and shirtless heroics guarantees that there might actually be the occasional female fan amidst the dudes with XXL hoodies and backwards Dean guitar baseball hats holding in their long curly locks.

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