Remember those Molly Hatchet album covers from the late 1970s? There's the one with a guy in a viking helmet and a chain-mail skirt, one with a creepy dude who looks like the Grim Reaper, another with a Conan the Barbarian-look-alike on a big horse. Some of the most awesome album covers ever.
But Molly Hatchet never sounded anything remotely like those covers.
High on Fire, on the other hand, sound exactly like their album covers look. The band's previous covers have had a winged monster perched on top of a mountain (Blessed Black Wings), a big eagle with claws (The Art of Self-Defense) and a guy who looks a lot like Molly Hatchet's Grim Reaper, except meaner, bigger, and scarier, and leading what looks like an army of the undead (Surrounded by Thieves). Their new disc, Death Is This Communion, features a horned yeti with a skeleton face, a club in one paw and a clutch of human skulls in the other. And that's what Communion sounds like. It's a big, dirty skull-yeti of a record, full of bludgeoning, bottom-heavy riffs, barbed-wire vocals, tempos that alternate between dirge and full-on thrash, and lyrics like "Reptile race crossbred down through the golden age" and "The graves hold arcane mysteries/Various swamps hide terrible catacombs."
So Communion is a lot like High on Fire's other albums. But there are some small advances—acoustic interludes, a Mellotron on the instrumental "DII," and the crisp production—that make Communion the band's most complete record so far.
"I'm really proud of it. We worked really hard on it," says singer/guitarist Matt Pike. Pike, the closest thing to Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister that America has produced, formed High on Fire with original bassist George Rice and drummer Des Kensel in 1998 after his earlier band, the stoner-doom-metal merchants Sleep, fell apart.
Pike credits producer Jack Endino and new bassist Jeff Matz for the improvements on Communion. Blessed Black Wings, from 2005, was produced by Steve Albini, whose stripped-down approach highlighted Pike's full, brutal guitar tone but also drowned the bass and drums in sludge. Endino, who has worked with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Flipper, maintains the dense guitar sound but offers a clearer, cleaner version of the full band. "Jack's amazing," Pike says. "He took on more of a producer's role in it than we've had before. He pushed us to get better takes. He pushed us to try different things and to be more experimental."
Matz fills a position that had been marked by an almost Spinal Tap-like rotation over the last five years. Rice left after Surrounded by Thieves in 2002 and was replaced by former Melvins bassist Joe Preston. Preston recorded Blessed Black Wings but left during the subsequent tour. Matz, who had been playing with the Seattle biker-rock band Zeke, took Preston's spot for the rest of the tour.
Preston's departure—and recent back surgery for Kenzel—cost the band some of the momentum they had gained with Blessed Black Wings. (That disc got good reviews not just in metal magazines but in The New York Times and Pitchfork.) But Matz, Pike says, may provide long-term stability and enough of a contribution to make the wait worthwhile.
"Jeff's 110 percent into doing this," he says. "He seems to be our permanent bass player. He brought a lot of ideas in, too. We had more time to write with him than we did with Joe Preston, and he brought a lot to the table."
The band has just finished a brief European tour where they got the first reaction to Communion. "It went a lot better than it usually does," Pike says. "We laid a whipping on everybody. And we sold all our merchandise. We usually come back from tours with all kinds of stuff stuck in our bags. But we got a good reception, especially when we played new songs."