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I shouldn't like this album. I really shouldn't. The vocals are total Lemmy-worship, the guitar riffs are so simple, they border on being dumb, the bass just sits there and follows the guitar most of the time, and there are not one, not two, but THREE interlude tracks on this album. It's too fast to properly be doom, not fierce enough to be thrash, too sludgy to be traditional heavy metal (in the vein of Motörhead), but too rocking to be sludge/stoner metal. High On Fire sits somewhere in this nebulous, not-really-defined realm where they lack any notable qualities to push them into a specific genre... and normally such a case would sound like a confused gobbledegook of influence worship.
But this is different. This kicks ass.
The key here is that there is not a single minuscule mote of uncertainty here. Every note is played like they mean it. This is not a band going through the motions, this is the sound of a band out for blood. Well, weed too, but that's secondary here. Yes, the riffs are simple and repetitive - hell, "Rumors Of War" goes through its three minutes at 130+ beats per minute on only two riffs - but they never get old. The band has such an intensity that you don't DARE question their riffs. Or the vocals, for that matter.
Speaking of the band, yes, Matt Pike is awesome, blah blah blah we know this already. What's really astounding is how Matt Pike does not dominate the show, but rather the whole band works as a single unit (as all bands should, if you ask me). Sure, certain elements may stick out more than others, but everything works together to form one piece of music. The fact that this album has the best production the band's ever had emphasizes this: each instrument comes through clearly, pummeling your skull in with the fury of a rabid heard of moose.
Undoubtedly the production helps, but what's the secret to making this all sound so damn heavy? It's not because the band downtunes to C, although that may contribute. The real secret to the huge sound... is having huge instruments. Go to youtube, look at some footage of them playing. Matt Pike is playing a NINE string guitar, and it's reinforced with a very very very low-end bass. Des Kensel's drums? That bass drum much be 30% larger than the average one, and the other drums (however unbelievably few in number they may be) follow proportions to that.
Speaking of the drums, we have another huge element of the pummeling power displayed. Seriously, where did Matt find this guy? Why hasn't he been in more bands? I'm still trying to figure out how he plays things like the first pattern in "Rumors Of War"; he hits the drums sixteen times with each repetition, the snare taking up the last four. It SOUNDS like he does hi-tom 4x, low-tom 4x, then floor-tom 4x before the snare, but... he only has one bass-mounted tom and the floor tom. So not only is he capable of playing faster and more precise than most doom metal drummers, and not only does he have huge drums, but he plays with the most expressive style I've heard in a long time.
How about the songs? I can't stop listening to this album. Every time it finishes, I want to hear more. The problem is that nothing else quite sounds like this, forcing me to loop the album constantly... leaving me in quite the vicious cycle. The beginning of "Fury Whip" implies a slower, doomier sound like their previous albums (though not quite as slow and doomy as the debut album)... but before long, it takes off into the more typical speeds of the album. The band is listed as "stoner doom metal" here on the Archives, but "speed/doom" would be more accurate. The title track, oddly, is the only one that maintains a generally slower pace. "Turk" and "Rumors Of War" may be special highlights, but nothing here is a waste of time. "Cyclopian Scape" is the track that best summarizes the album: semi-accoustic, Middle-Eastern flavored sections interspersed between huge sections of doom that speeds up into an all-out crushfest. The most skippable track here would be "Headhunter," but seeing as it's just a multi-tracked drum solo intro that feeds directly into "Rumors Of War," it's hardly filler.
There is no doubt this is High On Fire's greatest album thus far. The band is fully confident in their sound, and finally have the production to back them up. Their refusal to play any one clearly-defined metal style at any given time puts them in a very unique yet accessible place, filling a void that I never even knew existed. This album came out two years ago, and I've been enjoying it since then; the belatedness of this review only attests to the album's staying power. The only question I have: When can we have more?