Matt Pike would like it if you stopped comparing him to Lemmy. The High On Fire guitarist and frontman wants to distance himself from the legendary Motörhead venom spitter not out of ego but out of respect. As Pike tells it: “I had a dream about Lemmy. When Lemmy was still alive I always got compared to Lemmy, so I had this dream where he got pissed at me. He gave me a bunch of shit, basically, and was hazing me.” So goes the story behind the title track from High On Fire’s eighth full length studio album, Electric Messiah. The only problem is: “Electric Messiah/ thunder and fire” is a very on-point description of Matt Pike. You see: even in metal, Pike is an anomaly. The shirtless Oakland hesher has been in the metal game since 1990. That’s twenty-eight years. And twenty-eight years is a much longer shelf life than anyone is expected to have in any genre, let alone one as demanding as metal. In that time, he’s split his talents between two bands: Sleep and High On Fire.
The legendary stoner trio, Sleep, came up right at the beginning of nu-metal’s radio dominance. This was not the time to base your entire band around lo-fi Sabbath riffs, bong water, and conspiracy theories (ok maybe conspiracy theories played). It certainly wasn’t the time to write and hour long song about a country made out of weed. And yet, Sleep did all of that and still added a page to metal’s rich history. (They also regrouped and released one of the very best albums of 2018 back on 4/20.) After Sleep disbanded in 1998 due to label issues and everything that writing an hour long song entails, Pike spared no time forming High On Fire that same year. The formula was simple enough: thrashed out doom with Pike on guitar and lead vocals, Des Kensel on drums, and a revolving cast of bass players. The position is currently filled by former Zeke member Jeff Matz.
The band adopted a “why fix what isn’t broken” mentality and remained steadfast in the High On Fire sound from 2000’s The Art of Self Defense to 2007’s Death Is This Communion. The only shift in their approach came on 2010’s Snakes For the Divine and onward when the band simply decided they wanted to kick even more ass. The tempos became faster, the solos and riffs became more tangled, and hooks became even more prominent. High On Fire is by no means just a Matt Pike endeavor. He is, however, the perfect embodiment of the band’s ethos and, to a much greater extent, metal as a whole. The band was never what you would call “groundbreaking”. But like his personal idol Tony Iommi, you just know Pike inspired a sense of wonder and excitement for guitars and heavy music in countless shaggy haired teenagers the world over.
Now on Electric Messiah, High On Fire are still very much High On Fire. You know what “Spewn From the Earth” is going to sound like before you even press play. You know you’re going to hear Pike’s grizzled voice roaring out ragged melodies disguised as war cries while an unshakable rhythm section thrashes along underneath. All of this before Pike rips the shit out of it all. You know all of this is going to happen, but it doesn’t soften the blow one bit. That’s very special. When it comes to doing this one thing, High On Fire remain unmatched after all of these years. Like a mammoth caught in the tarpit, the nine minute “Steps of the Zigggurat/House of Enlil” then pivots into a sludgy pace and a hulking scale that’s as big as High On Fire ever gets. Pike growls and wails out above a militaristic back beat before the composition shoves back and forth between the track’s original towering riffs and the familiar High On Fire top speed chug. It’s one of the better examples of the band’s under appreciated knack for being foreboding and fun at the same time.
The time spent in the studio reunited with Sleep may very well be what sets Electric Messiah apart from the rest of the High On Fire discography. There’s more room for mid-paced and slower tempos this time around and the band doesn’t shy away from getting weird. “Sanctioned Annihilation” follows a similar format as “Ziggurat” with Kensel in much more of a floor punching, atom smashing mode. Guitar and bass leave black and blue welts and Pike takes on one of the strangest vocal performances of his career. Through a strangled bark, he warns about skeletons with secrets and black magic. After the sweltering guitar tones have blasted their way through, Pike calls out “the serpent devious” and “the deformed racist heretic” with vocals that don’t come from the gut, but from deep within the Earth. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine the group penning out these loose, hallucinatory jams bong in hand.
Despite these spacier excursions, High On Fire remain to be the same wrecking crew with a laser precision for adrenalin pumping, bulldog anthems. “The Pallid Mask”’s dizzying lead and burnout charge mixed with the perfectly logical chorus “The noblest place to die is where we die the deadest” is the kind of accessable gratuity designed for B-movie action sequences. “Freebooter” turns the dial up even further and sounds like the sequel to the Luminiferous opener “The Black Plot”. In spite of the rhythm sections musical dexterity, Pike manages to work in a swaying, intoxicated vocal melody on the chorus. Electric Messiah is an unstable record both in terms of the playing’s controlled chaos and the aggressively dark content. High On Fire have always worked with violent themes, but they’ve never been as vivid as they are here.
With it’s “Snakes For the Divine” echoing riff, “Drowning Dog” does all it can to insist “it’s kill or be killed in the end”. Somehow the over the top brutality comes out exhilarating in the most colorfully boneheaded way. Textured howls, a galloping stomp, and guitar leads that tattoo themselves to your brain turn “death surrounds you” into a crossover between Pentagram and Bolt Thrower. In a long and fruitful career, “Drowning Dog” stands as a highlight. We may as well call Electric Messiah a highlight too. The sheer strength of this collection is almost laughable. And no one should be surprised by that. I mean, what else is there left to say about High On Fire at this point? They’re eight for eight and there’s no reason to suspect they won’t be nine for nine. Or ten for ten. Or twenty for twenty. Goddamn.
Electric Messiah is out now on Entertainment One U.S.