High On Fire - Cometh The Storm (Cover Artwork)

High On Fire

Cometh The Storm (2024)

MNRK Heavy

Full transparency, I’ve been a fan of High on Fire since 2005’s Blessed Black Wings. In fact, it was possibly one of the first ‘extreme’ metal records I truly loved. Along with Mastodon’s Leviathan, it dragged me back into the murky depths of the heavier music that I had briefly abandoned in my late teens in favour of the shit being played in bars and clubs for a few years. Ironically, those were the really dark days.

So when this record was announced, the band’s first since 2018’s (Grammy-winning) Electric Messiah, I was obviously excited. Then, truth be told, I was a bit anxious. Because although the band’s sound has varied somewhat over the last couple of decades, with production choices altering their combined sonics as much as the band’s actual style at times, this is the first time there has been a change in the key ingredients. Des Kensel left the band in 2019, after 21 years behind the kit. He has been replaced by Coady Willis of Big Business and The Melvins fame. Along with Jeff Matz and the high-powered mutant that is Matt Pike, the band now has a new dynamic. Throw into the mix the fact that Jeff Matz has been travelling the world, both independently and with his other band Mutoid Man, and has taken time to study and learn the techniques of Middle Eastern folk music and the plucked string instrument, the bağlama (or saz) then there’s a lot going on. But lest we forget, Matt Pike also formed a solo band, released an LP, and toured the U.S. So all in all, this is the most potentially different that High on Fire have been as a band in 20 years. So maybe you can begin to understand my slight apprehension.

To paraphrase, oh me of little faith. Matt Pike had never let me down to date and I’m glad to say that his record remains unblemished. He has always been something of a personal hero. Half shirtless sweating man mountain, half riff, forged from metal and fire, he does what he was born to do across this record once again. If anything, his vocal performance is now more diverse and certainly more assured than it has been before. When he uses what amounts to his clean vocals, it feels like the lyrics are being reluctantly pulled from him like an infected tooth from rotten gums. The title track exemplifies this and builds, almost inevitably to a monumental Pike riff for the ages. But before that, the canvas that Pike uses must be acknowledged. The quasi-militaristic beats that Des Kensel used to deploy on occasion are utilised magnificently by Coady Roads across this song, and Jeff Matz’ bass work is as pummelling and deceptively complex as ever. Pike also delivers a solo in the song that showcases a greater degree of emotive intelligence than might have been the case in earlier records. And the last minute or so is truly apocalyptic. It’s by no means from the “Electric Messiah” or “Rumors of War” playbook as far as singles go, it’s something far more brooding and less immediate, whilst still being entirely representative of the band.

Album opener “Lambsbread” is another I want to spend a bit of time on. Built around a hulking, insistent Pike riff that feels like it could have come from the De Vermis Mysteriis sessions (that’s a good thing by the way), we’re introduced to Coady’s power and precision, along with the Eastern influences that have turned up every now and then in the band’s past, but now (perhaps thanks to Jeff’s travels) a more authentic and dexterous version appears, and is interwoven with Pike’s signature chugging, sliding furiosity. And when the song emerges, bit-by-bit from that section, the songwriting skill that allows it to feel entirely part of the same song is apparent. The track is nearly 6 minutes long, and that’s exactly how long it should be. Because that’s how long it needs to be. The lack of formula in the HoF camp’s songwriting approach is again clear to see. And I can only applaud them for that.

As much as I’d like to, I won’t walk you through the record track-by-track. I will say though, that across the record’s 11 tracks and c.1 hour runtime, you’re treated to a fully-formed Eastern instrumental, 3-minute ragers, some of the most unhinged Pike moments ever (the three-song suite of “Tough Guy”, “The Beating” and “Lightning Beard” should be evidence enough to assure people that HoF are a long way off of slowing down…) and a 10-minute closer that showcases both the sludge-drone predisposition that Pike has leaned into to great effect across his career, but also a patience and dexterity that few bands would dare to try and lay claim to. The fact that Kurt Ballou produced this album definitely bears mentioning as well. Ballou has a knack for capturing bands in a way that feels as gnarly as it does cohesive. He mentioned recently in an interview, the fact that a lineup change can be the perfect opportunity to re-energise a band and that he felt that was very true of this record. Whether the band needed a shot in the arm is debatable, but the fascinating combination of variables that contributed to this record’s creation have borne something quite special. Cometh the Storm; I welcome it.