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Fury Mix: High On Fire and The Power of the Producer

HIGH_ON_FIRE_in-studio_1_credit_A_Stuart

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High On FIre belong to a certain class of metal bands notable for their consistency in both style and substance. Like their spiritual forebears in Motorhead, the arrival of a new High On Fire album doesn’t promise many surprises.Either you find High On Fire to be reliable, or you find them to be predictable. This consistency means that the incremental changes from record to record pop out and take on greater significance than they would for a more stylistically fluid band. For High On Fire, those minor shifts have come with their choice of collaborators. In fact, Luminiferous, the band’s newest album, is probably most notable not for it’s bizarre lyrical occupations (cause c’mon, this is Matt Pike we’re talking about here) but for being the first record in over a decade of the band’s history to be produced by the same engineer as its predecessor.

Over the course of their career, High On Fire have worked with five different producers, each of whom have taken the band’s signature sound and pushed it in subtly different directions. High On Fire’s consistency as songwriters and performers means that the differences in their records end up saying just as much as the people behind the boards as it does about the band itself.

Billy Anderson: The Art Of Self Defense (2000) & Surrounded By Thieves (2002)

Anderson, as the producer of each of Sleep’s full length records, must have been an obvious choice for the first two High On Fire albums. Having worked with everyone from Swans to Neurosis to Melvins, Anderson’s pedigree in the field of loud and aggressive rock music is unquestionable.

But while Anderson’s touch lent a cultish charm to Sleep, his harsh and abrasive sound isn’t the best fit for High On Fire. Both The Art Of Self Defense and Surrounded By Thieves get the basic mix right—the guitars are enormous and the drums heavy on the low end—but the quality of the recordings themselves don’t do the band many favors. Though the drums are at an appropriate volume, they feel close mic’d, giving their volume a claustrophobic and artificial quality. Matt Pike’s vocals feel equally boxed out and sound more like they are inserted into the mix instead of something occurring naturally within the music.

It’s safe to say that the lukewarm quality of these two records also comes from the band still finding their footing. There are flashes of brilliance—“10,000 Years” from The Art Of Self Defense is a stand out from this period—and all the essential ingredients to the band’s sound are present. But Billy Anderson does little for the band other than set an acceptable standard for their work going forward. Anderson’s touch has always been better suited for more openly antagonistic records, and never felt like the right fit for High On Fire’s more classically anthemic qualities.

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Steve Albini: Blessed Black Wings (2005)

Probably the most well renowned name on this list, Steve Albini doesn’t even like to be referred to as a producer. As one of the most prolific engineers currently working, Albini is famous for emphasizing the live performances of the band he works with, very rarely enforcing any additional instrumentation or creative flourishes in the editing process. Think of him as more of a documentarian than a director.

This approach requires that the artist being recorded has their shit together before the tape starts rolling, and it certainly isn’t a process that fits every act (Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings accused Albini of “play[ing] Scrabble on Facebook almost the entire time” while they worked with him, which is believable and pretty funny to imagine).

When High On Fire linked up with Albini to record Blessed Black Wings in 2005 they most certainly had their shit together. The band sounds well rehearsed and utterly confident in the material on this record, and Steve Albini’s hands off engineering doesn’t impede their performances in the slightest.

What makes this album most interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to the “reality” of High On Fire as a live band. The guitars are explicitly overdubbed: there’s no attempt to hide that, or to hew too strongly to the band’s power trio lineup. However, there are clear discrepancies between the two guitar tracks, slight imperfections in rhythm, a few flubbed notes left in, all the kind of details that most producers would try to sweep under the rug. It takes a lot of faith in the power of the songs and the performers to leave the warts in. It helps of course that this is where High On Fire really hit their stride as a band and that Des Kensel’s tom-heavy drumming is a perfect match for Albini’s boomy drum sound.

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Jack Endino: Death Is This Communion (2007)

If the previous two producers seem like odd choices for a relatively straightforward stoner metal band, Jack Endino is an even further stretch. As a producer for both Mudhoney and Nirvana, Endino shares Albini and Anderson’s connections to the alternative scene. But whereas the Albini serves as a conduit for his employers, Endino is a capital P producer who knows how to draw more out of a band than might be apparent.

Endino’s history with grunge and more traditional songwriting gives him an outsider’s perspective on Death Is This Communion. He recognizes what High On Fire’s strengths are, and knows how to complement them, but also pushes the band beyond their limitations.

Wisely he treats High On Fire as a rock band, not a metal one. The drums are nowhere near as loud as on previous albums, and the vocals end up taking up a great deal more sonic real estate.

Subsequently, Matt Pike sharpens his usual hoarse yell into a stronger melodic instrument, layering harmonies and centering the songs around much more defined hooks.

Death Is This Communion is easily High On Fire’s catchiest and most accessible record, but it doesn’t skimp on experimentation and deliciously metal excess. The overlapping guitar solos in “Fury Whip” are straight out of the Tony Iommi playbook, as are the jammy interludes that weave between the full fledged songs. Endino allows High On Fire to go on some strange digressions, whether that be a track of multilayered drums or an instrumental that makes heavy use of mellotron. These moves link the band to an older tradition of rock records and help elevate Death Is This Communion from a collection of songs to a full on album.

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Greg Fidelman: Snakes For The Divine (2010)

Perhaps the only interesting thing about this choice is that it feels fairly conventional for a metal band. Whereas Anderson, Albini, and Endino are most well known for their work with alternative and experimental rock groups, Fidelman has a body of work that shows familiarity with high profile metal acts. As part of Rick Rubin’s engineering team, Fidelman has been involved with records by Metallica, System Of A Down, Slipknot, and took lead production duties on Slayer’s World Painted Blood. It makes sense that High On Fire, fresh off a brand new record deal with E1, would link up with a producer that could potentially put them over the edge and into the metal mainstream.

It’s a logical move, but there are two major problems with it. First, Fidelman’s prestigious credits don’t necessarily speak to the quality of his work: World Painted Blood is one of the most lifeless and flat sounding metal records in recent history, especially from a band with as much weight to throw around as Slayer, and it’s generally accepted that Fidelman’s mix for Death Magnetic is as much to blame for that record’s brick walled compression as it’s mastering. Second, High On Fire do not take particularly well to a streamlined high end production job.

In order to achieve the clarity required of a mainstream metal record, Snakes For The Divine trims away much of the size and character from Matt Pike’s guitar tone. Kensel’s drums suffer just as much, sounding greatly diminished, especially in comparison to the preceding records. An unexpected silver lining to this is that Jeff Matz’s bass playing is markedly more pronounced, especially on the title track, but the bass lines themselves rarely call for this kind of attention.

This is the first record on which High On Fire’s songs are great—”Bastard Samurai” and “Frost Hammer” in particular go hard—despite the lens that they are heard through. Fidelman is unquestionably a professional, but this record is a mismatch of producer and performer. Fidelman could probably work wonders with a band as reliant on clarity as say, Lamb Of God, but High On Fire don’t chug, they roll and rumble.

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Kurt Ballou: De Vermis Mysteriis (2012) & Luminiferous (2015)

While the band has never admitted it publicly, it isn’t hard to imagine that their decision to work with producer and tourmate Kurt Ballou was a reaction to the results on Snakes For The Divine. All of the messiness that was scooped out on that record is back in full force on the two albums that Ballou engineered.

Throughout his work with Converge and other bands in the world of metallic hardcore, Ballou has cultivated a sound that feels too brash and loud for the speakers it’s being played through. Having produced records for a host of bands from the Southern Lord and Deathwish Inc, Ballou had a huge hand in the explosion of “Entombedcore” acts from the last few years. This familiarity with more extreme varieties of hardcore and metal gives him the right toolbox to approach High On Fire with confidence, but also enough distance to guide them in new directions.

Like Albini, there’s a raw “live” quality to Ballou’s work, but unlike Albini who attempts to capture bands as they are, Ballou’s production recreates the experiential truth of seeing a band live. The songs on these two records, De Vermis Mysteriis especially, are caught in a chaotic swirl of white noise. Notes become indistinct, vocals occasionally buried behind the walls upon walls of guitar. Ballou allows the band just enough clarity for their strongest songwriting to shine through, but doesn’t hinder any of the massive tones that make High On Fire who they are.

There’s also a hint of Endino’s more rock oriented touch in Ballou’s production as well. The explosiveness of his production is tempered by a tight and lively drum sound. By keeping the drums, and the snare in particular, sharply defined and audible at all times, Ballou anchors High On Fire rhythmically which allows for their guitars to expand into every corner of the mix without devolving into mush. He even sneaks in some surprisingly tuneful backing vocals into “King Of Days.”

It makes sense that after changing producers for much of their career they would decide to settle on Ballou for two projects in a row. Part of me would love to see High On Fire continue to explore different options for collaborators. Matt Bayles (Leviathan, Panopticon, We Are The Romans) would be an interesting fit, as would a newer name like Jack Shirley (Sunbather, Crowhurst), and it would be fascinating to see them take a major risk working with someone like David Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala) who could bring out the band’s latent psychedelic tendencies. But fans of the band aren’t going to be losing out if the Ballou era extends further. It will just be another addition to High On Fire’s immovable consistency.

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—Ian Cory

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High on Fire is about to embark on a tour with Pallbearer, Lucifer and Venomous Maximus, with two dates sponsored by Invisible Oranges. Refer to further details here.

High on Fire / Pallbearer / Lucifer / Venomous Maximus — 2015 Tour Dates
July 30 San Diego, CA The Casbah (no Venomous Maximus)
July 31 Los Angeles, CA Echoplex
August 1 San Francisco, CA The Regency Ballroom
August 3 Portland, OR Hawthorne Theater
August 4 Vancouver, BC Rickshaw
August 5 Seattle, WA Neumos
August 7 Salt Lake City, UT The Complex
August 8 Denver, CO The Gothic
August 10 Minneapolis, MN Mill City Nights
August 11 Chicago, IL Thalia Hall
August 12 Ferndale, MI The Loving Touch
August 13 Toronto, ON Opera House
August 14 Syracuse, NY Lost Horizon
August 15 New York, NY Irving Plaza
August 17 Boston, MA Royale
August 18 Brooklyn, NY Music Hall of Williamsburg
August 19 Philadelphia, PA Theatre of the Living Arts
August 20 Baltimore, MD Baltimore Sound Stage
August 21 Winston-Salem, NC Ziggy’s
August 22 Atlanta, GA Masquerade
August 23 New Orleans, LA One Eyed Jack’s

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