It’s been 15 years since High On Fire released its legendary debut, The Art Of Self Defense. But, unlike most heavy bands that have been around for that long, High On Fire’s music has only become increasingly fierce, evolving from mid-paced stoner metal to its current sound, which pays homage to bands like Saint Vitus while intermixing elements from Motörhead and Slayer.
In 2012, High On Fire took this pulverizing thrash approach to an extreme with De Vermis Mysteriis. Produced by Kurt Ballou of Converge, the album is an aural attack with minimal relent. Luminiferous, also recorded by Ballou at GodCity, takes a slightly different direction, using more vocal harmonies and elaborate song structures, but without sacrificing venom.
Matt Pike opens the album with frenetic palm mutes and power chord slides, which Des Kensel emphasizes by seamlessly blending long rolls and double bass fills. “The Black Plot” then moves into a manic death march, quickly building into double-time thrash that’s pushed by Kensel’s virtuosic drumming. In contrast to many metal drummers, Kensel constantly uses his entire kit, infusing 30-second-note tom rolls with athletic, Dave Lombardo-esque footwork. Pike’s tar-soaked falsetto soars above this mayhem, sounding like Lemmy singing one of Josh Homme’s infectious hooks.
The second track, “Carcosa,” immediately launches into a circular groove, the pulse of which is Jeff Matz’s nimble bass work. While playing one of his deceptively brilliant guitar riffs, Pike wails, “We have moved through time / Contemplate gold signs.” Now popularly known as the Yellow King’s horrific labyrinth from True Detective, Carcosa originally appeared as a city in Ambrose Bierce’s 1891 short story, “An Inhabitant Of Carcosa.” Bierce’s city is a version of purgatory in which time can only be perceived retroactively—a literary reference that Pike deftly tucks into an anthemic chorus.
The next four songs each exhibit High On Fire’s ability to write drawn-out compositions that refrain from becoming too repetitive while also managing to create room for ferocious guitar solos and dizzying drum flurries. “The Cave,” the seventh track, provides a rest from this metallic warfare, beginning with a delicate bass line that sounds like Cliff Burton exploring a Middle Eastern scale. As Kensel joins with a fittingly gentle beat, so does Pike, enveloping the rhythm section in a kaleidoscopic tapestry of acoustic guitar and phaser-drenched lead. The band then coalesces in a chorus that conjures images of charging dire wolves before they retreat back into the song’s ethereal den.
Luminiferous aptly ends with the nearly nine-minute epic that is “The Lethal Chamber.” The song revolves around an oppressive sludge riff, routinely branching into tom-driven gallops and tremolo picking, but only to get pulled back to the bellicose core. This track, as well as Luminiferous as a whole, aggressively illustrates that High On Fire still deserves its place at the top of underground metal’s food chain. It’s hard to think of another band with this much staying power.