There’s no escaping those Sleep boys this year, is there? With rapturous receptions of Matt Pike’s new High On Fire record, Al Cisneros’ new Om record and of course the long awaited re-release of Sleep’s magnum-dopus Dopesmoker, 2012 will surely be the year that Sleep defined. On that rather grandiose note, here comes a reissue of the original (and occasionally-out-of-print) High On Fire record, The Art of Self Defense, courtesy of Southern Lord. Completely remastered by Brad Boatright (who must be doing something right, having been responsible for the remaster of the aforementioned magnum-dopus) and featuring two bonus 7” tracks (including a Celtic Frost cover) and their original three-track demo, this is a reissue how it should be done – it gives the record a facelift and throws in a few extras to help illuminate the band’s humble beginnings.
After the frustrating limbo that Sleep found themselves in with the whole London Records vs Jerusalem/Dopesmoker debacle, the band slowly fizzled out and eventually broke up. It was this which prompted Matt Pike to start High On Fire in 1998 as a way of “putting his life back together.” His new band was a marked departure from Sleep’s laid-back stoner groove; of course, the Matt Pike guitar tone was still a thing of crushing beauty, but from the offset High On Firewere an altogether more hostile, brutal beast than Sleep ever were. It’s hard not to compare the differences between Sleep’s two axe-men and the opposing paths the two men took after Sleep broke up; the quiet, retiring, shy Al Cisneros formed the philosophical and theological Om while the slightly brash, party dude Matt Pike formed High On Fire, a band whose very name signifies a kind of reckless outlook on life. And the music reflects the name to a tee.
The Art of Self Defense is the perfect blueprint for High On Fire’s career and opening track “Baghdad” can be seen as the archetypal High On Fire song. The song’s driving momentum is propelled by Pike’s dirty guitar and even grittier voice, more Lemmy than Ozzy and infinitely more menacing. The opening bass riff of “10000 Years” soon mushroom-clouds into a monstrous fallout shower of bombastic metal and psychedelic blues, a theme continued on “Lost.” Elsewhere, “Blood from Zion” is like High On Fire’s own “Ace of Spades.” The downward spiral of riffs on closing track “Master of Fists” are as pummelling as the title suggests – each chord feels like the band are dropping sandbags on your head from a great height. In short, the album is as devastating now as it has ever been – a trailblazing stoner-punk delight.
Now for the extras: the two 7” bonus tracks had previously been included in Tee Pee Records’ 2001 reissue of the album so most people will probably be familiar with them – “Steel Shoe” fits the mould of the album and could easily have been an album cut while their cover of Celtic Frost’s “The Usurper” is a nice addition and a pretty spot-on homage to the original. The demo versions of “Blood From Zion”, “10000 Years” and “Master of Fists” are more for High On Fire completest than anything else. In fact the most interesting thing about them is how well they are recorded, how fully-formed the songs are at the demo stage and how little they vary from the more well-known album versions.
It’s still a fantastic record and the extras are an added, if inessential, bonus, an insight into the band’s genesis. Once again Brad Boatright has done a fantastic job in revitalising an old classic, giving the murky record a brighter, heavier sheen. This year’s De Vermis Mysteriis has already made quite an impression on fans and the critics alike and so revisiting their debut album at this point in time is a good reminder of how far they’ve come, even if their core dynamic hasn’t changed all that much over the course of six albums. This is a badass album that signalled to the stoner world that there was indeed life after Sleep. Pike once defined heavy music as the soundtrack to a pissed-off warlord chopping off a dude’s head with an axe, and it doesn’t get much more badass than this.
Scribed by: Tom McKibbin