High On Fire: LIVE!

The biggest metal story of the first half of the year belongs to Black Sabbath.

More than three decades after his original departure from the band, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne reunited with most of his former mates to finally his first new studio album with the group since 1978’s embarrassing Never Say Die. All didn’t go as planned. Drummer Bill Ward sat out over reported contractual disputes and ceded his throne to Rage Against the Machine skin-pounder Brad Wilk. Osbourne also owned up to binging on drugs and alcohol, leading some to predict a divorce from his wife would follow. In the end, the revelation seemed like a publicity stunt.

As comebacks by Social Security-eligible musicians go, Black Sabbath’s 13 represents a respectable attempt at recapturing former glories. The chemistry is better than that on a similar ensemble’s return—Van Halen’s 2012 A Different Kind of Truth—and guitarist Tony Iommi still hasn’t encountered a giant riff he couldn’t slay. The involvement of big-name producer Rick Rubin coupled with an ad blitz helped give the English legends their first-ever number-one album. Granted, attaining such a feat is much easier in 2013. But numbers don’t lie.

Akin to every other heavy band to pick up instruments, turn up amplifiers, and conjure apocalyptic feelings, High on Fire owes much of its existence to Sabbath. Yet like every great artist, the Oakland trio managed to long ago transcend its influences and leave its own mark on its métier. In terms of consistency, aggressiveness, ambition, skill, and intensity, no metal collective dominated the past decade more than High on Fire.

Led by guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike, the threesome utilizes pace, power, and physicality in brazen arrangements stargazing psychedelia to village-pillaging sludge. Metal—as susceptible as any genre to spikes and lulls—is currently in a creatively dormant stage, but anyone curious about the style’s progressive evolution and modern strengths since its last peak (circa 2006) can turn to Spitting Fire Live Volume I and II for a Cliffs Notes summation.

While Osbourne and Co. kept busy last fall orchestrating a high-priced publicity rollout, High on Fire played gigs at a pair of revered New York venues shortly after Pike’s emergence from alcohol rehabilitation. Selections from those performances, which document a reinvigorated and even stronger-willed band than that of pre-treatment Pike, fill these concert LPs. High on Fire comes on looser than it does on its tight-as-a-clenched-fist studio efforts. Then again, Pike takes extra liberties with axe-wielding solos and by extension, pushes his mates to even greater heights. Songs such as “Frost Hammer,” “Devolution,” “Speedwolf,” “Fury Whip,” and “Rumours of War” sound true to their titles. Not for the faint of heart, High on Fire thrives on in-the-red energy and mantle-hot rhythms that shake harder than a revved-up Harley-Davidson.

Raw, ferocious, uptempo, tough, violent, growling, sweaty, beautifully ugly: Fine portraits of underground metal heroes that, to paraphrase Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, play their nuts off.