High on Fire – The Art of Self Defense

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High on Fire
The Art of Self Defense
Southern Lord
 
The power of the riff compels me!
The power of the riff compels me!
The power of the riff compels me!

Rarely I have been so thrilled at the reissue of the album than I have with High on Fire’s debut album, ‘The Art of Self Defense’. Matt Pike’s stint in rehab and his recently stolen guitar aside, it has been a stellar year for Pike so far, with not one, but two magnum opera being (re)released – the stunning ‘De Vermis Mysteriis’ and the rerelease of Sleep’s infamous and incomparable ‘Dopesmoker’ that Southern Lord also reissued earlier this year. Some successful touring with both Sleep and High on Fire has commenced, prior to Pike’s entering rehab to overcome an alcohol addiction.

High on Fire have enjoyable gradual, considerable success since ‘Surrounded by Thieves’ and, in particular, ‘Blessed Black Wings’ emerged, but back in 2000, when nu-metal was still dominating the airwaves, Pike’s re-emergence with the then-fledgling High on Fire gathered little attention. Originally issued on Man’s Ruin Records, and then again with bonus tracks by Tee Pee Records, it was an excellent debut album let down slightly by a (perhaps to be expected) low-budget production that meant that the stoner metal vibe that High on Fire were trying to project at the time was slightly lost and the true power of these songs were never truly realised.

The last time I listened to any part of this album, it was a dreary day in Hull’s Rail Station years ago. I listened to the reissue initially on a walk through rainy Huddersfield. I immediately forgot I was in the middle of a soaking. 

Brad Boatright, just as he did with the recent Sleep re-issue, has done an incredible job once again of remastering and enhancing ‘The Art of Self-Defence’. Any initial thoughts about missing the old-school production eventually subsided simply due to the raw power. Like any High on Fire record, it needs to be blasted through the speakers to generate the full effect, to gain the full experience. After all, it’s the first Pike record post-Sleep, and one which sees his new band going that bit more aggressively, but still rooted in Sleep territory. Unlike later High on Fire records, ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ relies less on speed, more on broad thunder, crashing down with each repeated riff.

High on Fire – Blood From Zion

I mean, those drums are positively powerful. The intro to ‘Blood From Zion’ is positively explosive. The repeated tom rolls of ‘Last’ boom across the savannah, instead of fizzling through my headphones like that rainy day in Hull. There is a much more repetitive nature about some of these songs than on later albums, but that’s not a bad thing here – it feels perfectly natural. The intro to ‘Fireface’ could well have come from Sleep’s discography, and ‘Last’ certainly wouldn’t have felt out-of-place either, as it leads us all to another satisfying riff trip. The zap of ‘Master of Fists’ is the perfect finisher to regular proceedings, an impassioned stoner jam in honour of Bruce Lee, it would seem. One half a lumbering mammoth of a track, the second an ominous warning as it thunders out the remainder of the original tracklisting.

Of the extras, the bonus tracks ‘Steel Shoe’ and a faithful cover of Celtic Frost’s ‘The Usurper’ are much more what High on Fire were to become, the former should certainly have you headbanging properly. The remaining three tracks are demos that completists will certainly enjoy, the improved production highlighting their rough edges but still an exciting document all the same.

Plenty of bands try to conjure images of demons, witches, neophytes, monsters, tuskans, winged beasts and more – but none do it quite so fittingly as High on Fire. It’s grand that this once hard to find release has been given a new sheen, boosting its best qualities – the trademark Pike guitar, chunky bass and boomshot drums – whilst retaining that raw power and grit. It’s a must not just for long time fans of the band like me, but also fans who might have only just gotten into High on Fire as their profile has risen. Stylistically, yes it is somewhat the unfinished package – but their odyssey into thrashing songs of foreboding lore can once again be traced back to the start.

Peter Clegg

Buy ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ (reissue) here

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