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High on Fire - Electric Messiah Music Album Reviews

The recent success of Matt Pike’s rebooted Sleep sounds like it’s rubbing off on his long-running High on Fire, whose eighth album leans on the heavier half of their habitual doom-meets-thrash mixture.

High on Fire are often compared to Motörhead, for many reasons: their raw speed, gravelly throats, swaggering attitude, and—lately, especially—consistency. Black Sabbath-style riffing at thrash tempos while Matt Pike sings about arcane creatures: You pretty much already know what a new High on Fire album will sound like, and that’s not to their detriment at all. For almost a decade, they bounced from producer to producer, striking gold with Steve Albini (Blessed Black Wings) and Jack Endino (Death Is This Communion) before pairing with the more commercial Greg Fidelman for with their most anthemic material, on Snakes for the Divine. In Kurt Ballou, they found someone who cut through the mud, making them sound their most extreme without squelching the dynamics. Sticking with Ballou for a third time might make it seem as though there’s nothing new on Electric Messiah, but even though High on Autopilot would still be a thrilling heavy-metal odyssey, subtle changes make all the difference.

High on Fire are by no means obscure, but they’ve tended to live in the shadow of Pike’s other band, Sleep. The former may have a broader body of work, but the latter have a mythology, something to sell beyond the music. (This is not a knock against Sleep, and The Sciences is a welcome comeback.) Sleep rebooted are the band that allowed Pike to quit his day job and get the 1978 El Camino he always dreamed of owning, something even High on Fire’s frequent touring couldn’t achieve. Electric Messiah leans more on the Sabbath side of Pike’s patented MotörSabbath blend, suggesting that Sleep’s renewal is rubbing off on him. “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil” would be a lightning-fast Sleep song; in High on Fire terms, Pike lets his riffs come to a rolling boil rather than unleash everything out the gate. “God of the Godless” incorporates some of Sleep’s boogie, which gets drowned out when Pike and company go full Slayer. On “The Witch and the Christ,” there’s even a throwback to Blessed Black Wings, where High on Fire were beginning to realize themselves as a metal metal band, even though they hadn’t yet entirely shaken off Sleep’s doomy crunch.

Still, when High on Fire rip, it’s like they’re tearing through the whole universe. Most bands would struggle to even halfway keep up with the way they bash away on “Spewn From the Earth.” The title track was born from a dream—a divine vision, if you will—Pike had where Lemmy was hazing him. Motörhead are so integral to High on Fire’s being that it was only a matter of time before Lemmy himself turned up in one of their songs. High on Fire reimagine their “messiah”—already a larger-than-life figure, but also ultimately a dude who liked women, video poker, and Jack and Cokes—by giving his band’s sheer speed a cosmic thrust. The music’s still dirty as hell, yet there’s a bigger purpose behind it all.

“Sanctioned Annihilation” is Pike’s take on a Sabbath-style epic, one that imagines Tony Iommi marrying his monolithic riffage with the longer, more melodically driven ballads of Sabbath’s Dio era. This isn’t a ballad, but the bigger scope and all-encompassing feeling are there, and this is where Electric Messiah sets itself apart. “Sanctioned Annihilation” is High on Fire’s “Sign of the Southern Cross,” moving through battle and victorious comedown, sown into the dirt yet always looking ahead and upward. Pike is lauded as a high priest of metal for his invocation of metal’s finest; “Sanctioned Annihilation” reveals that even in tribute, Pike’s reverence always comes out in his own image. It also reveals how thundering a drummer Des Kensel is—just as important as Pike, but considerably more low key. He combines Dave Lombardo’s double pass with Dale Crover’s hypnotic, hard-hitting tom bursts, and this is exactly what Pike, who swings between so many extremes, needs. “Annihilation” is cut from the same cloth as “Snakes for the Divine,” one of their most popular songs, for its interpolation of “Thunderstruck” via Master of Puppets, even though the two songs don’t example resemble each other. Both tunes capture High on Fire reaching the top of the mountain, achieving a moment of godliness for a sliver of time. And that, above all, is how Electric Messiah is the High on Fire you’ve come to expect.

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