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Photos by Alyssa Herrman

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Sometimes you just need to go to a show and feel like you've gotten the shit kicked out of you. Sure, there's lots of bands with technical mastery out there, if you're into that sort of thing, and plenty of costumed, face-painted acts whose live set compensates for the holes in their music, but at the end of the day heavy music needs to be visceral and brutish if it is to retain its essence.

Oakland sound gorillas High On Fire have been kicking the shit out of crowds for almost twenty years, so when I found out they were touring in support of their new slab Luminiferous I decided to go and get my ass handed to me.

As scheduled openers Venomous Maximus had experienced catastrophic van failure earlier in the evening, Lucifer brought their Frankenstein’s monster of Sabbath and Cathedral to life in front of a half full but warm crowd. The Berlin doomers attempted to make their creation dance, but unfortunately, with the complete oversaturation of this style of music nowadays being the norm, it shambled, albeit with flashes of brilliance.

Frontwoman Johanna Sadonis (formerly of The Oath) and her ululating voice are the highlight for the group live, and she is persuasive in her efforts to hypnotize the audience. Lucifer is a tight band of experienced musicians with well crafted songs, and their performance was flawless, but they need something a bit more unique if they are going to stand out from the growing pack.

We went from Lucifer to Pallbearer, which, if the line up had been different, normally would have had me thrilled. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Pallbearer, and I had never seen them live before, but the combo of Lucifers' doom and the funeral despair of Pallbearer before High on Fire was like mixing Ambien and Valium before being the victim of a street mugging.

The band met my expectations however, playing selections from last years Foundations of Burden alongside older tracks with a melancholy that enveloped the steamy room by the end of their first song. They are able to summon an absolute sense of dread and anguish dappled with sumptuous melodies, which, especially at high volume in a dripping hot venue, transformed the evening into a dark, introspective journey.

High on Fire have cemented themselves as modern heavy metal heroes, and their live reputation is a large part of that status. As they took the stage to the roar of the crowd, bassist Jeff Matz looked like a wizened guru about to impart the heaviest of wisdom while guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike greeted the audience briefly and launched into "The Black Plot" from their new album.

The hallmark of any professional band is how they work under pressure, and right from the first verse, technical difficulties with the microphone rendered Pikes voice soundless. No matter. They tore through the song with abandon, never missing a beat, and when the mic was finally restored, just before the chorus, Pikes raspy roar bellowed through the room along with the crowd, turning a technical failure into a rock and roll moment.

As the group beasted into fan favorite “Rumors of War,” my attention was locked on drummer Des Kensel and his ferocious pummeling. The studio, until recently, has never really captured the thunder this man creates, and his contribution to the sound is just as essential as Pikes dirty riffs and growls. It's a perfect storm of toms and bass drum, and it is magnificent.

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Video by Billy Goate of Doomed and Stoned

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New song “Carcosa” was one of my favorites on the setlist. The songwriting demonstrates how far the band has come, charging off with hook after hook while still managing to be dronefully heavy, and then that riff kicks in. You know the one, right after the chorus. It brings you right back to when the band dropped “10,000 Years,” and you realize that these dudes are on top of their game and only getting better. As they played through “Death is This Communion” and newer songs like “Luminiferous” and “The Falconist,” the tracks flowed seamlessly together and a symbiosis occurred between performers and viewers; it was as if all in attendance were being sonically flagellated.

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Video by Billy Goate of Doomed and Stoned

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By the time they wrapped up with “Snakes For the Divine,” the entire place was coated in sweat, and Matt Pike appeared to be at once healthy, mean and happy. His playing reflected that, with his leads especially on several songs sounding triumphant and feral.

Pike exorcises whatever demons he has in his performance, and it works on every level. While his other, older project Sleep might be more influential right now, High on Fire has flown the banner of unadulterated heavy metal while still managing to stay relevant in turbulent times. Put on an early song like “10,000 Years,” then listen to newer material like “Madness of an Architect'” or “Carcosa”; High on Fire have managed the rare feat of evolving into a bigger entity without losing the soul of the band. And they can still kick the living shit out of you.

—Matt Schmahl

Lucifer

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Pallbearer

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High on Fire

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