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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

High on Fire

Surrounded By Thieves

Review by Mike Korn

If ever an album cover gave you an idea of how the music within sounds, this would be the one. We have before us a horde of mail-clad warriors looking like they will kill anything that moves. The scene is dark and gloomy but lit by the flickering light of flames. In the foreground we see the most ominous warrior of all, axe poised for murder. The imagery summons up perfectly where High On Fire are coming from. This is dangerously heavy music, reeking of majesty and belligerence. The doom/sludge/stoner genre of metal is taking a life of its own and along with Electric Wizard and Warhorse, HOF is at the forefront. These guys are no bandwagon jumpers either...lead singer/guitarist Matt Pike was the mind behind the cult doom band Sleep.

Whereas Sleep was trippy Sabbath influenced music with a heavy dose of 60's/70's retro textures, High On Fire is more aggressive. It's certainly not death metal, but the musty production recalls the early 80s and stuff like Bathory and Hellhammer. The guitar just oozes with raw power. Riffs slide greasily into each other instead of locking together geometrically like so many other bands. The thick and syrupy bass would do Geezer Butler proud, and always hammering in the background is the jacked-up double bass of Des Rendel.

It's not as whacked out or monotonous as the newest Electric Wizard and it's fairly easy to get into if you accept the band's genre. In fact, several tunes like "Razor Hoof" and "Nemesis" are pretty compact. This definitely does not drone on and on. The more I listen to "Surrounded By Thieves", the more it soaks into me like a sonic poison. This is brutally entrancing heavy metal and highly recommended to everybody who likes their music loud!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Eyes and Teeth
This sort of creeps up on you as a slinky bass riff gradually builds in intensity. Then Matt Pike's growling guitar takes over and sets up a pounding, nervous track about a man being stalked by a monster. There is a great feeling of tension as the song builds and explodes into some killer doom riffs towards the end.
Hung, Drawn and Quartered
Slamming double bass drumming provides a relentless backbeat for this aggressive track. It's not fair to call this doom metal as it seems too uptempo and violent. Let's just call it extremely heavy metal.
Speedwolf
The brief mellow refrain that starts this tune is the only real relief you get all record. Everything about this song sounds thick and the tune definitely brings to mind classic Black Sabbath and Cathedral but with HOF's own signature.
The Yeti
This is where High On Fire really slips into high gear. This epic is monstrously ponderous and features some really unique "Oriental" style riffs. It's quirky stuff, matching the mysterious subject matter. Again the track builds and lays into the listener with a deadly barrage of sludgy grooves - great stuff!
Nemesis
The more aggressive side of the band surfaces again with this jerky riff-fest. Rendel's drumming forms a blistering backdrop for Pike's guitar histrionics. Lyrically this is the nastiest track by far.
Thraft of Canaan
This piece alone is worth the price of the album. It's a brilliant epic of Viking metal, bristling with a rough medieval feeling. The riffing is muscular and catchy and about halfway through the track, it hits some absolutely monster chords before speeding up at the end into a kind of triumphant feel. There should be a movie to go with this track - it's awesome.
Surrounded by Thieves
The title track is a fairly quirky beast, sounding pretty off the wall with peculiar beats and time changes. The typical HOF sludge riffing is there but it's kind of hard to pin down here.
Razor Hoof
This brief tune comes closest to the traditional "stoner" style of rock but is much heavier than we're used to. The bouncy vocal line follows the guitar picking and makes the song memorable in kind of an early Sabbath way. It ends with a barrage of double bass from Des Rendel.
 
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