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Surrounded By Thieves & Remission Turn 15

surrounded by theives

In the early 90’s, Relapse Records put out some of the first official releases of iconic bands like Suffocation, Incantation and Deceased. Relapse built on this early success by adding veteran groups like Neurosis and Amorphis later in the decade, securing their rep as a destination for top-tier talent. But the real secret to Relapse’s longevity has been their proven track record for signing bands that help creatively renew subgenres as well as bringing new listeners into the fold. Nile revitalized brutal death metal by exploring their fascination with Ancient Egypt, not just as an aesthetic, but even featuring some traditional Egyptian instruments. Dillinger Escape Plan revitalized hardcore with their complex rhythms and jazz fusion freneticism. Cephalic Carnage did the same, just for grindcore. This Saturday marks the fifteenth anniversary of two important albums for the label, the bands, and extreme metal in general: High on Fire’s Surrounded by Thieves and Mastodon’s Remission.

Surrounded by Thieves is High on Fire’s second record, but first for Relapse, and they took the label upgrade seriously. The Art of Self Defense was a good doom debut, but vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike seemed a bit stymied in how to break out of the mode of his previous band, Sleep. The first half sports plenty of great resinous riffs, but side B falters with overlong, repetitive sketches of songs. For the follow-up, the band upped the ante in speed and volume, trimming the fat. Running almost exactly forty minutes, the record only wastes space during the nearly inaudible first minute. This always seemed like something of a prank, as if the band wanted the listener to keep turning up the volume in order to make out the faint bass throb only to be wiped out when the massive weaponized guitar kicks in.

Good lord, the guitar sound on this thing. It’s like a giant wall of rushing water, with the arrangements acting like canals or dams hoping to channel or briefly contain it. Pike’s credentials as a modern guitar god were never about dexterity or intricacy, but rather his intense physical engagement with his instrument. He’s a burly dude, and he whips the neck of his Les Paul around like a knockoff Strat. His strumming hand is a bear claw mauling the strings. It gives his playing a visceral quality that none of his many imitators can match.

Des Kensel’s drumming defines the “caveman” approach, his tom patterns acting as a rhythmic bedrock similar to how most metal bands would use double bass. For many, the most memorable moment on the album may be the drum intro to “Hung, Drawn and Quartered,” where Kensel gets thirty seconds to himself before the next crushing wave of guitar hits.

The vocals fare worse. Pike wasn’t yet a very strong vocalist, and his attempt to keep pace along the music means he spends much of the album sounding in need of the Heimlich maneuver. He makes the most of what little he has, though, sacrificing his larynx in the high-octane “Speedwolf.” In lieu of a chorus—not many of those yet—we’re treated to a hardcore riff that sounds like it was dredged from boiling tar. It’s a masterpiece of the dirty, primitive High on Fire, before the band learned how to thrash more nimbly and conventionally.

The tendencies of Pike’s musical past still make a few appearances on Surrounded by Thieves. If Sleep had stayed together after recording Dopesmoker, “Thraft of Canaan” would have certainly fit on their next record. But whereas Al Cisneros might have been inclined to let the track drift into zero gravity with some spacey bass noodling, Pike stays the course, slowly ticking up the intensity before the whole thing crests with one his trademark solos full of colorful psychedelic squiggles.

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As if Surrounded by Thieves wasn’t enough to put the sludge metal world on notice, the simultaneous release of Mastodon’s debut full-length signaled a major sea change in the genre that has remained influential to this day.

Remission isn’t a proper sludge album; it doesn’t fit very neatly into any category. It’s fast. It’s technical. It’s atmospheric. It’s bursting with all sorts of 70’s influences ranging from Southern rock to prog. It’s flat-out brilliant. Opening track “Crusher Destroyer” could have come from Obituary, but the dueling licks from Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher midway through hearken back to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts more than any metal guitar tandem.

A track like “Trilobite” resembles the slow-burn of Neurosis, but drummer Brann Dailor doesn’t wait too long before launching into his Christian Vander impression. Dailor, of course, has long been considered the marquee attraction of Remission. At a time when most of extreme metal’s biggest drummers were locked in an arms (and feet) race to see who could be the world’s fastest metronome, Dailor ditched mechanic precision in favor of human ingenuity.

His innovative playing sets the tone for a lot of these songs and gets the listener invested in the song early. He treats the intro riffs of “Where Strides the Behemoth” and “Trampled Under Hoof” as opportunities to accelerate tension right out of the gate, packing in enough ecstatic fills to fit the climax of a drum solo. Dailor stays just as sharp during the album’s quieter moments. His jazzy touch enhances the moody intro to “Ole Nessie” and the instrumental closing cut “Elephant Man.”

But it’s on “March of the Fire Ants” where he and his bandmates hit their strongest stride. It’s an instant classic that, fifteen years later, hasn’t lost an ounce of power. There’s that killer opening riff backed by Dailor’s martial snare work, chopping up his rolls enough to keep things interesting. The song also boasts one of Troy Sanders’ fiercest vocal takes, and the triumphant twin-guitar lead that soars in out of nowhere. It’s the rare crossover song heavy enough for the underground that could still easily appeal to the average Big Four fan. It is frequently cited as the group’s single best song. It’s also one of the few songs from the album to remain a consistent live staple, serving as the grand finale for the band’s most recent tour.

In addition to a release date, both Surrounded by Thieves and Remission share levels of extremity that neither band ever tried to exceed. In the case of High on Fire, that extremity is in the overpowering production. While the trio would continue to develop their sound, both in terms of songwriting and in the studio, it was the barbaric fury first heard here that was the necessary boost that the group needed in order to push past the rest of the doom metal pack.

Similarly, Mastodon never went as swiftly for the jugular again as they did on Remission. Throughout the aughts, the band aged gracefully by leaning more and more on their progressive side, showing increasing confidence in their hooks and clean vocals. But their work after Crack the Skye finds the group in a holding pattern of half-hearted retreads and unexciting pop-metal. Songs like newest single “Show Yourself” sound like they only exist to be licensed by the NHL as the soundtrack to highlight reels. Playing the long game, High on Fire has easily beat out Mastodon. But fifteen years ago it was a much fiercer battle: Primitive Man versus Beast.

—Jason Bailey

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