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Lately, I've been giving High On Fire a really deep listen. Arising out of the ashes of Sleep, High On Fire takes a more muscular approach to the stoner/sludge aesthetic, infusing it with a hard-hitting barbarian ethos. They also restlessly pursue a unique studio vision, incorporating differing production aesthetics into each record in order to continually seek out fresh sonic canvases upon which they can splatter their rough-and-tumble palette of booze-soaked heavy metal.
Death Is This Communion finds High On Fire in the company of Jack Endino, a producer known more for his work with alternative rock acts like Mudhoney, Seaweed, and Nirvana. He does have a few metal(ish) records to his credit, including albums from The Accüsed, Tad, Therapy?, and 7 Year Bitch -- records with some bite but still lacking the overall heaviness that a band like High On Fire lashes forth like a flame emblazoned whip. And personally I feel he drained High On Fire of that heaviness. The guitars feel shunted back in the mix; the bass, while prominent doesn't quite fill out the sound. He does catch the drums at a nice level but honestly the whole thing sounds castrated -- High on Fire operating at 1/10th their usual power.
The songwriting really doesn't help things either. There's a lot of embellishment, noodling, and filler around the edges, stretching out the playing time without adding much in the way of power. In fact, the effect is quite dampening. I keep waiting for the songs to bolt forth with killer riffs piling up -- a sound with which they've previously blown my ears back. But it never really happens. Songs like "Turk" and "Rumors Of War" kick out the barbarian jams with ruthless aggression while "Ethereal" gets the head nodding but I find these tracks to be the exception rather than the rule. "Fury Whip" takes forever to get going but is pretty smart once the beat kicks in. Still it never quite smashes your teeth. The title track is a slow slog that never quite hooks in either. And I find all the Middle Eastern tinged acoustic guitar work kinda forced and boring.
Ultimately, Death Is This Communion is just too ornate and rococo for me: its amalgamation of exotic flourishes leaves me cold, accentuating a drawback in songwriting that no amount of unconventionality can mask. That the band sounds tired and adrift doesn't help, nor does the weak production, which robs the band of the heft necessary to cleave their way through the sonic excesses that wind up hindering their creative vision. Death Is This Communion is easily High On Fire's least successful record.