High On Fire, Torche, Kylesa @ The Middle East, Cambridge, Mass., on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010
The last time I saw Matt Pike, he was blowing the collective minds of about 2,000 people, fronting the improbable return of Sleep at ATP/NY (more on that here) while slinging some serious mind-melting guitar from his Les Paul while Al Cisneros and Jason Roeder blew the fuck out of the Sleep songbook. Now that fever dream has passed, and he's back in the real world, as the leader of High On Fire.
Pike's made some changes on the new Snakes For The Divine; of course, he's back playing (throttling?) the nine-string First Act guitar and has retired the sunburst Les Paul, and he's switched labels (the newer E1 label instead of old home Relapse) and producers (veteran indie producers Steve Albini and Jack Endino have been jettisoned in favor of Greg Fidelman, better known for his work with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer). The basic blueprint of the band has not been touched: Send as much current through the guitar amps, drum mics and vocal mics to stun a medium-sized farm animal, via a more thrashy sound as compared to the drawn-out deep cerebellum visits of Sleep.
High On Fire has never been about crafting songs that you can hum along to and snap your fingers. Melody is an after-thought, mood and energy are the trump cards in this particular game. For a three piece, cohorts Jeff Matz and Des Kenzel sound more like a room filled with multi-armed musicians, the massive pound of "Hung, Drawn and Quartered" or the full-on thrash of "Silver Back" seemingly not possible with only three guys on stage. Unsurprisingly, the new record got quite a bit of play, with four of the the eight played, starting with the raw "Frosthammer" and ending with the title track, the squiggly guitar lead-in recalling AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." The slower tempo "How Dark We Pray" wasn't in the set and neither was one of their heaviest statements to date ("Death Is This Communion") but there was plenty of head-banging going on during "Turk" and the malevolent "Blessed Black Wings," with Pike leading the band and the crowd into a fury.
Torche played before, and this was the first real set I've seen of them since they dropped down to a three piece (I only caught a song or two at last year's Scion Rock Fest and they have gone even deeper into writing catchy rock songs and away from their noisier past. Leader Steve Brooks looked like he was having a blast as he always does, grinning maniacally as he approached the crowd at the stage edge to lean over and flash some guitar licks. Bass player Jonathan Nuñez has to have some of the strongest neck muscles that aren't attached to an NFL lineman, as he constantly thrashed his head back and forth, and the metal guitars that both he and Brooks play can't be very light to begin with. At one point someone in the crowd tired of the '70s butt-choogle rock and yelled out for them to play something heavier. To which the band obliged, launched into "Mentor" and caused the floor to become a single, heaving and seething mass.
Kylesa (also a veteran of 2009's Scion Rock Fest) opened the night and played a fair bit of their just-released Spiral Shadow. The core of Laura Pleasants and Phillip Cope were out front, but it appeared as though the bass player (he didn't look like Corey Barhorst) and one of the drummers are new recruits. Speaking of drums, in addition to the double kit, occasionally Cope and the bass player would also grab sticks and beat on floor toms, lending a massive boom to the rhythm. Wisely they played their finest song to date ("Unknown Awareness"), a perfect combination of the double-visioned drum patterns and anthemic guitar riffs.