I’m not sure exactly what happened, but it barely seems that long ago that High on Fire were first unleashing their highly effective brand on sludge-laden, riff-heavy doom metal upon the world. Yet somehow, it’s twenty years since the band first formed. Not that you’d necessarily know it from listening to Electric Messiah. Album number eight from the Matt Pike-led trio is a monster of Godzilla-sized riffs, drums so crushing that could shatter buildings, and vocals as powerful and charismatic as they come; so, all is it should be, then. And yet, there’s an almost progressive edge to some of these songs that, somehow, sits comfortably alongside High on Fire’s riff-fueled fury.
To get the obvious out of the way first: every track on Electric Messiah is a colossus of riffs and heavy metal fury, filled with sludge-like weight and the kind of raw power that helped define Motorhead’s legacy. Matt Pike’s vocals are as primal and commanding as ever, drawn from the depths of time, the actual lyrics irrelevant compared to the sheer force of will they put across. High on Fire tap into that primordial spirit that lurks within metal, that sense of something that transgresses genre; a feeling of power, of strength, of the sheer joy of riffs being played at deafening volume and heads starting to bang in Pavlovian response. It’s the kind of music that makes you feel like you could fight an army; that you could topple mountains; that you could shift tectonic plates if your will was half as strong as that of these riffs.
Yet there’s always been more to High on Fire than just riffs – though, there’s plenty of those here, as you’d hope. This is best demonstrated by how Electric Messiah begins. Going from the frantic opening track ‘Spewn from the Earth’ straight into the nine minute ‘Steps of the Ziggeraut/House on Enlil’, a track which is content to take its time building up, moving from tar-drenched, mid-tempo riffs to blistering rock fury, demonstrates that High on Fire aren’t afraid to take risks. Is it a slightly disjointed way to open the album? Sure. Does it work? Pretty much. Even when writing epics such as this, and ‘Sanctioned Annihilation’ later in the album (which is over ten minutes long), High on Fire still pack plenty of primal heavy metal riffs in to their songs, meaning even the longest tracks on Electric Messiah still have plenty of punch and energy.
But, in truth, Electric Messiah is at its best when High on Fire keep things concise. The four minutes of the title track – a homage to Lemmy – is one of the most exhilarating songs High on Fire have put to tape; and ‘The Pallad Mask’, with its dexterous drumming that contrasts well with the sheer weight of the guitars, is as claustrophobic as it is energising. Songs such as this, and ‘The Witch and the Christ’, show that High on Fire don’t need to write long songs in order to include a multitude of ideas.
Ultimately though, Electric Messiah is High on Fire doing what High on Fire do. The odds on them drastically changing sound or approach at this stage are practically zero. Matt Pike may protest all he likes against Lemmy comparisons, but there’s a lot of truth to a comparison between High on Fire and Motorhead – and not just because both bands have gravel-throated frontmen and riffs for miles. There’s a shared love of the joys of rock’n’roll at the heart of both bands, of the way a bloody good riff played loud can change your life, and how, ultimately, music like this should simply be enjoyable. Whatever progressive aspects High on Fire may introduce, however long their songs may get, the Power of The Riff is what is at their heart, and just like Motorhead, I don’t think High on Fire could make a genuinely bad album if they tried. Electric Messiah may not break the mould (which, admittedly, is one that High on Fire have done a lot to help define in the first place); but in a way, that’s what you’d hope for. What’s perhaps less expected is that Electric Messiah is a strong shout for being High on Fire’s best record to date. It’s hard to state that for sure at this early stage – better to re-assess in a year or two – but at this stage, Electric Messiah sounds as fresh, heavy, and fun as High on Fire ever have, with some successful forward-thinking elements in the mix too.
Electric Messiah is due for release on 5 October 2018. For pre-order details, check eOne’s website.