“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is quite a mantra for bands to adapt, and for every band that it works for, there are ten others for whom the bull-headed mindset fails miserably. Fortunately for metal listeners, High on Fire are firmly in the camp of the former. The Oakland, CA trio – now 17 years into their career – have been somewhat jokingly dubbed as the Motörhead of primal, bulldozing sludge metal, though their sound has always integrated elements of psychedelia, traditional heavy metal, and pummeling thrash. When you hear that High on Fire is coming out with a new album, you basically know what to expect: Matt Pike’s gravelly, hoarse scream sermonizing about conspiracy theories and some way-out-there esoterica; riffs that turn rock to lava and swing with an almost bluesy feel; Des Kenzel’s thunderous drumwork that borrows heavily from John Bonham; and Jeff Metz’s grimy, relentless bass work pinning down the bottom end. While the band’s last effort, De Vermis Mysteriis, saw the band wander slightly into more psychedelic territory, Luminiferous marks a return to more riff-oriented material while still throwing some curveballs and experimenting with clean vocal melodies and new textures.
It’s hard to talk about this album without mentioning frontman Matt Pike’s newfound sobriety. While High On Fire have never made a bad album, Luminiferous feels far more focused and hits harder than De Vermis Mysteriis. “Slave the Hive” erupts with a manic energy and is probably the most savage song High On Fire have recorded to date, and the title track is just as crushing with its bombastic drum fills and thrash-rooted riffs. The faster cuts possess a frantic yet razor-sharp quality to them, but when the band slow down for the rolling groove of “Carcosa” and “The Sunless Years,” the change in dynamic is very effective. Not much can be said about Matt Pike’s guitar work that hasn’t been said before – he is one of the great riff-smiths in metal, churning out earworm grooves, tight-wound rhythms, and solos that blend the best of blues-based figures and psychedelic freakouts. With a larger-than-life production from Kurt Ballou, Pike and his rhythm section sound positively balls to the wall heavy here, with the bass filling in the space Pike’s gargantuan guitar tone and Kenzel’s roomy, warm drums.
Interestingly, the “experiments” here result in the Luminiferous‘ most memorable moments: “The Cave” is the type of song that has been hinted at for years, but given frontman’s new lease on life with sobriety, this song absolutely shines. Pike’s gruff vocal melodies combine with climactic riffs and gentle, moody acoustic guitars on the verses to create the most dynamic and personal (lyrically speaking) song in High On Fire’s discography. Similarly, “The Falconist” has an almost upbeat, soaring feel to it, anchored only in the metal realm by Pike’s recognizable vocals and the bruising guitar tone. High on Fire have attempted feats like this on past releases, but they’ve never been executed as effectively as they are on Luminiferous.
Luminiferous, from start to finish, is arguably High on Fire’s most accomplished effort since Blessed Black Wings; they’ve chosen to stay true to their roots and do what they do best, but they also prove that they’re better at taking risks than most other bands in the doom/stoner niche. Simply put, High on Fire sound revitalized and poised for total domination on their latest effort, building on their past successes while bravely forging forward into new territory.
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Dustin is an educator, musician, and writer based out of northeastern Kentucky. He’s the angry young gentleman behind the sounds of Old Thunder and has an infatuation with the works of Cormac McCarthy. Coffee loves him, and he loves coffee.