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Restless Sleep - 74%

psychoticnicholai, August 13th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2000, CD, Man's Ruin Records

Those of us who know about High on Fire know that Matt Pike originally played in Sleep. We also know that High on Fire would go on to dominate the sound of fast, aggressive stoner metal, combining the speed and grit of Motörhead and various thrash bands with the riffing and density of the stoner sound Pike helped to pioneer. In the early days of High on Fire, their sound was basically a more aggressive version of Sleep. Everything sounds similar, just a bit angrier. The riffs are a bit faster, the tuning is darker and lower, and Matt Pike's vocals are sung in a similar style to Al Cisneros with just a bit more grit. High on Fire delivers some extremely heavy and punchy stoner sludge right out of the gate on The Art of Self Defense and the songs hold up well, it’s just that High on Fire had yet to establish their identity and crank the barbarity into overdrive like they would later on.

The whole album follows a pattern of very murky, churning riffs that would not be all that unfamiliar to anyone who's paid much attention to stoner metal and certainly worth stomping along to. "Baghdad" sets the tone with how it sways and shoves with its weight. The riffs curl around quite a bit and make for some very mighty sounds. Stomping, aggressive, curling, and fuzz-drenched is how The Art of Self Defense feels all the way through. If you like your music consistent, you'll probably like this. If I can put a positive spin on this, it's that these riffs are certainly infectious and do a lot to give this album its strength. The songs are long, but they can trudge in a way that makes you want to go along with the crushing, mid-paced gallop of thick guitars. If I could point out the negatives, I'd say that all the similarity without a massive uptick or downswing in aggression or variance in song structure makes me feel tired when listening all the way through. Matt's singing also feels too subdued for this kind of stuff. Perhaps that's just me fixating on the future High on Fire, but I like this stuff more when Matt is bellowing like a demon, rather than sounding relaxed enough to get overwhelmed by his own avalanche-like guitar playing. While I will always enjoy the mighty riffs of "10,000 Years", I can't help but feel that this kind of music needs more of a kick to really work. This is nice, but it's nothing I'd break my back over.

High on Fire came up like a plume from Sleep's smoldering body. The signature groovy and lethargic style of Sleep is still here, perfect for any listeners looking to enjoy a bit of ganja. However, this means that at this point in their career, High on Fire had to change, mature, and find its own skin if they wanted to succeed. The Art of Self Defense is an example of what High on Fire sounded like before they could shake off the connection to Sleep and created their later ball-blasting style of high-speed stoner metal. There's a lot of good riffing on here, and some smoky muscle to the music, but what I get is an album that's more aggressive than Sleep, but gets the balance between new anger and old lethargy in a very middling position. More menace and more speed could give something like this a real kick. An increase in variation is also a good idea. What I got was okay, but it felt undercooked, even if the songs themselves were nice, thick, and smoky like any good barbecue should be. Anyone who loved Kyuss or Sleep and wants something like that, but just a bit meaner, The Art of Self Defense is probably a good addition to your listening regimen.