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Features Rank and File

Rank and File: High On Fire

When I think heavy, I think High on Fire.  The Oakland trio, spearheaded by riff-wizard Matt Pike (Sleep), have the same tender touch as a group of tornadoes full of medieval weaponry and construction vehicles.  Carrying the torch for such greats as Motorhead and Judas Priest, High on Fire take the diesel fueled charge of 80s heavy metal and infuse it with a primal, bloodthirsty rage.  They are a band that can not only boast superiority in each individual element of their music, but also in overall consistency.

High on Fire have recently been spotted in the studio and have announced several tour dates, so rumors of war are rumbling.  It looks as if we might be getting a new record this year, folks.  In giddy anticipation, I would like to take this time to rank High on Fire’s seven previous studio albums from amazing to amazingest…..objectively, of course.

7) Surrounded by Thieves

High on Fire’s first two albums still had one foot in the stoner-doom pond that is Sleep.  The production was muddy as all hell, the riffs much more sluggish (in tone, not speed), and Matt Pike’s vocals were much more “sung” than “punched out.”  Of these first two albums, one of them worked much better than the other, and it wasn’t Surrounded by Thieves.  This is in no way, shape, or form a bad album – it’s actually really damn good.  You just won’t really get anything here that you can’t get even better on any other High on Fire record.  Surrounded by Thieves is a somewhat inaccessible album surrounded by an instantly accessible discography, but it’s still worth getting to know…hell, it’s still necessary.

Final Grade: B+

6) Snakes for the Divine

Snakes for the Divine is a tricky album to rank.  On one hand, it houses some of High on Fire’s best songs and moments.  On the other hand, it’s the kind of album that I tend to pick and choose songs from instead of listening all the way through.  It’s production is also much cleaner than other albums, which can be a positive or negative depending on your mood.  It comes in low on this list, but don’t let that deter you from it.  The AC/DC-esque, arena-ready opening title track will slice you to pieces, the spoken word segment from “How Dark We Pray” is chilling, and Des Kensel’s drumming on “Fire, Flood & Plague” is pure adrenaline.  Again, songs and moments…..

Final Grade: A-

5) Luminiferous

Don’t think that having High on Fire’s latest album this low on the list means that they’re losing their touch.  If anything, I would argue that this is one of the band’s most oppressively heavy releases.  Luminiferous beats out Snakes for the Divine for this very reason.  The production on this thing is gargantuan, and coupled with the long, riff-driven song structures, this creates a rather unique offering from Pike and co.  It is equal parts punishing and beautiful, with standout tracks like “The Falconist” and “The Cave” showing Pike at his most melodic since his short-lived time as frontman for Kalas.  This entire album is like a sand-filled duvet, and it’s damn comfy.  

Final Grade: A

4) The Art of Self Defense

High on Fire’s debut album has the same feel as Surrounded by Thieves in that Matt Pike’s roots in Sleep are still very obvious.  This, however, is the album that I mentioned previously that did it 100% right.  “Baghdad” debuted Pike as a frontman, and remains to this day one of his best vocal performances in any song.  Also, if you tell me that “10,000 Years” doesn’t contain one of the greatest sludge metal riffs of all time, I will fight you.  I believe a lot of praise is given to debut albums by default, and I was completely ready to rank this album right next to its predecessor just to rustle a few feathers….but integrity’s a bitch, and The Art of Self Defense truly deserves all the love and more.

Final Grade: A

3) Blessed Black Wings

“Wait……oh my god….he didn’t…..he couldn’t have….”  Yes, I’m ranking Blessed Black Wings as High on Fire’s 3rd best album, not as number one.  Rolling Stone placing it in their “100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time” list doesn’t phase me.  I also realize that this was the album where High on Fire finally developed a sound that was all their own, and that its importance in their career is absolutely paramount.  But if you strip away the aura of reverence that surrounds Blessed Black Wings and focus simply on the content within…well, you’ll still find an incredible album, I can’t lie.  This record introduced the world to High on Fire as we know them now.  Their warrior aesthetic was fully realized here, with riffs planted firmly in the blood soaked sands of a desert planet and Pike’s vocals brought forward in the mix to direct you straight into battle.  I wrestled with these last three slots a lot, and as essential to any metal-head as Blessed Black Wings may be, the next two albums on my list barely nudge it out.  Then again, this album has “Brother In The Wind”…..dammit.

Final Grade: A+

2) De Vermis Mysteriis

Remember when I said High on Fire is heavy?  De Vermis Mysteriis is their heaviest album.  Don’t believe me?  Listen to “Bloody Knuckles,” clean up the mess, and then come apologize to me.  For real, someone must have really pissed off Matt Pike before he wrote this album, because this thing rips like a bat out of hell.  De Vermis Mysteriis sees High on Fire at their best.  Jeff Matz’s bass is crunchier than ever, Des Kensel’s percussion is somehow more thunderous, and Pike’s vocal/riff concoctions are unbelievably lethal.  My high praise for this album does not stem completely from its weight, though.  The record also has one of the best flows from beginning to end while still keeping a tight-knit variety between each song.  The melodies are used sparingly, as per usual, but are potent enough to infect the entire area around them (check the chorus on “Serums of Liao”).  Keep your shock value, slam-death grindcore bands, De Vermis Mysteriis is one of the heaviest albums of all time.

Final Grade: A+

1) Death Is This Communion

Hold on everyone, I’m seeing something.  It appears to be a word….yes, a single word, floating….no, speeding towards me…..the word is….”flawless.”  High on Fire have a pretty tangible aesthetic to their music, and Death Is This Communion is the album that captures this aesthetic better than any other.  These songs exist in a world of Arik Roper artwork and 1970s Heavy Metal magazine covers.  It’s a desolate wasteland traversed by outlaws, asteroid hoppers, spearman, gunslingers, mutant hunters and, of course, Taarna.  It takes a special kind of band to make music that is visually stunning, but Death Is This Communion hands out synesthesia like candy.  Every track on this record feels like a handful of earth.  Ferocious brutality, excellent interludes, distinctive song variety, everything that makes High on Fire the legends they are is delivered here in spades.  

Final Grade: A+

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Adrian Dias May 25, 2018 at 11:35 pm

For me, personally, I feel as though “De Vermis Mysteriis” is the only High on Fire album that I would classify as a bad one. It was heavy, sure, but a lot of the songs feel like emptier, hollower retreads of their previous efforts – but with 20% more noise. I also find myself leaning more in favour of “Surrounded by Thieves” than “The Art of Self Defense”., but holy hell ’10, 000 years’ is one the greatest sludgey songs I have ever heard.

But… those are my own opinions and that is the beauty of an excellent band such as High on Fire. They are nigh consistently heavy, technical and fun to listen to – yet varied enough to never seem formulaic while sticking to their signature sound.

Sam Coons May 29, 2018 at 4:51 pm

I see that about De Vermis Mysteriis, it didn’t necessarily offer much new aside from sheer, pounding heaviness, I’ll admit. And I think I’m in the minority with Surrounded by Thieves, the album just never clicked with me like all the others. Glad we agree on 10,000 years though haha! That shit rips!
Thanks for reading!


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