C. S. Lewis, whom we all know best as the creator of a wardrobe-encased world known as Narnia, also wrote a book-long study of the epic, and of Milton’s in particular, called A Preface to Paradise Lost. I consider it to be as thorough and accurate a reading of the genre that one might hope to find, and the passage which I remember the most compares the performed recitation of the “primary epic” – that which has been developed through oral tradition – to the presentation and subsequent consumption of a turkey dinner on Christmas day. As Lewis explains, the successful performance of an epic poem must hold an air of ceremony, which is to say it is a special, but not a surprising, event. So when the turkey is served on Christmas day, everyone recognizes it as an out-of-the-ordinary meal, while at the same time it is exactly what they expect to be served on Christmas day.
I want to be very clear that when I add the arrival of a new High On Fire record to this list of the “special but not surprising”, which I am hereby doing, it is by no means because I wish to say that the band is simply doing the same thing over and over, because they aren’t. Rather, High On Fire is so fucking good (and so fucking consistent) that with each release I get exactly what I expect – which is an astonishing album – but am still blown away to the point of incredulity. I mean, we’re talking about a band whose “golden era” should encompass Surrounded by Thieves, Blessed Black Wings, and Death is This Communion, yet who nonetheless managed to put out an album in 2012 that arguably surpassed, but undoubtedly equalled them on all counts – songwriting, chops, vision, brutality, etc. It’s damn close to unfathomable!
And while what may have been most impressive about De Vermis Mysteriis was its relentlessness, and the idea that even a band as veteran as High on Fire, and a figure as veteran as Matt Pike, could go on making albums that were not only better, but heavier, it is not this same effort to bludgeon that predominates their new release, Luminiferous. Nor should it! The fact that Luminiferous isn’t quite as forceful as De Vermis Mysteriis (even though it’s still heavier than a to-scale, plutonium sculpture of Satan himself), doesn’t mean they’re receding, or growing old, or doing any of the same things that so many other bands are doing (no, I’m not naming names) to distance themselves from the traditional metal aesthetic. It simply means that they’re smart at what they do, and briefly put, this is the right album for these guys to make at this point in time.
The record kicks off with a one-two punch that’s classic HoF, invoking in particular the analogous opening of the now-ten-years-old (!) Blessed Black Wings. The tracks are “The Black Plot” and “Carcosa”, respectively, and like “Devilution” into “The Face of Oblivion” before them, they comprise a pummeling, thrashy onslaught that segues into a deliberate, groovy, face basher. In short, a summary of two very different things that this band can do with equally convincing aptitude. Even if you only listen to these songs as a study of the various effects of excellent double-bass playing in divergent musical contexts, you’ll still be getting your money’s worth. In fact, “Carcosa” may be my favorite track on the album, despite its inspiration coming from what I consider an absolute donkey turd of a TV show. It’s one of those songs that reminds you that Matt Pike used to be in Sleep (still is in Sleep, I guess?) and it’s got this great shift from complex and syncopated rhythmic patterns during the verse, to a relentless four-on-the-floor for the chorus, that drives with such force that you’ll find it impossible to not pound some part of your body along with it. And then after the chorus they get even slowwwwwer, and never before has a riff been more akin to Mothra vs. Godzilla, in slow motion and drenched with psychedelics.
Can we talk about the broken triplets? I’d say at this point they’ve achieved the status of “trademark”, as much as big swirlies were for Van Gogh, or debauchery was for Lord Byron. Go back to such HoF classics as “Rumors of War”, “Fireface”, “Ghost Neck”, and the aforementioned “Devilution”, and you’ll see what I mean. Or maybe you won’t, but I’m referring to these little clusters of notes/blasts/kapows in multiples of 3 that the band plays in unison, which serve to momentarily break away from whatever main riff is choogling along, and give the illusion of 3 land mines blowing up in succession, or 3 cannonballs hitting a dragon in the face, or 3 celestial bodies plopping out of the other end of a black hole; use your imagination. Well they’re in full effect on “The Black Plot”, whose verse riff goes something like:
BOOM chuggachugga BOOM chuggachugga BOOM chuggachugga BOOM BOOM BOOM
Those last 3 “BOOMS”, those my friend are the broken triplets. They’re also all over “Slave the Hive”, which is this album’s most ferocious track, although on that one they come in double-packs, equalling 6 at a time instead of 3. And songs like “The Sunless Years” and “The Dark Side of the Compass”, well they don’t do quite the same thing, but still rely heavily on triplet-based riffs which nonetheless achieve a similar effect.
How cool is that? Does your band have a trademark? And I don’t mean some dumb thing you always resort to doing because you’re out of other ideas, but a unique, well-placed, instantly recognizable indicator that you’re not only responsible for writing cool songs and solid albums, but are in fact architects of an entire sound? Well, if you don’t, it’s OK, but you certainly have something to aspire to.
This concludes what is probably my most ass-kissy review yet. And it’s not because I’m an ass-kisser. It’s because High on Fire is the best goddamn band on the planet, and they just proved it with another amazing record, their seventh masterpiece, one which contains a bounty of freshness, creativity, and sheer force that most bands deplete after a record and half, if they’re lucky.
Buy the damn album, and in the meantime check out my fave track, “Carcosa”: