If High on Fire’s newest—Electric Messiah—was, in fact, inspired by a dream Matt Pike had about Lemmy, then opener “Spewn from the Earth” is a statement of purpose. Pike has always reminded me of Lemmy as a vocalist and High on Fire always incorporated a bit more thrash than some of their stoner comrades. Their (Lemmy & Pike) vocals are gruff and barking, they play up the aggressiveness of thrash, but High on Fire still play in some of the whole-tone, lydian-ish modal territory of stoner riffs, but they really commit to speed on this record in a way notable even for them. “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil” still has a plodding opening section that will remind of High on Fire’s elder-statesman status in the world of stoner/doom. You hear where bands like Sumac clearly picked up on some of their tricks.
However, it’s worth noting that Electric Messiah is not just a paean to Lemmy, nor is it a mere re-statement of purpose from metal veterans. It likely is all those things, but, it’s an argument, a thesis as well. The flashes of thrash here are not referencing Metallica or Slayer, they’re referencing Mötörhead and Diamond Head—that is, proto-thrash. In this instance then, what we see is not the coke-fueled excess of 80’s extreme metal, but the trucker-speed imbued decadence of 70’s England and the fertile breeding ground of punk and early metal (remember, after Hawkwind, Lemmy cameoed with The Damned after Brian James absconded and Captain Sensible moved to guitar, briefly gigging as The Doomed). As such, we see some of the common ancestries for both thrash and doom in the blues and modal/psychedelic inflections of High on Fire’s riffs: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bang, Atomic Rooster, Captain Beyond, Sir Lord Baltimore.
Kurt Ballou’s production enables this masterclass because his production is not dependent on triggers and compression, but natural room sounds, and the accurate capture of tubes and circuitry pushing sound and extreme volumes and capturing the resulting interaction between sound & space, an ethos not that far removed from Glyn Johns after all, really. “God of the Godless” exemplifies this argument for a continuation from the heady speed and abandon that rock and roll first inspired in the 60’s straight up through heavy psych to metal to proto-thrash to thrash and stoner/doom. Bluesy vibrato intro morphs into droning enharmonic chords that loom overtop of the rhythm section’s propulsive beat, leading to deft half-time grooves over the returning early blues vibrato riff, launching into thrashy vocal sections (actually, contrary to earlier assertions, you might hear shades of Metallica here). Album closer “Drowning Dog” doubles down on the strategy with a slight more protean take on the intro, summoning Presence-era Zeppelin more than early-Zeppelin.
Taken as a whole, Electric Messiah is a compelling argument in favor of the aesthetic continuity Pike seems to glean from the history of metal. High on Fire expertly harkens to each style, each reference, with all of the expertise and confidence of a band that’s been raging for 20 years now. It’s good to see a band return to roots and double-down on their own sense of style, rather than ceaselessly re-invent themselves, and still pay off their listeners with something capable of getting their blood up, something exciting and inspiring. High on Fire knows who they are. One of the great bands in the history of metal. Electric Messiah is their latest impressive entry to their credentials and you shouldn’t sleep on it.