Review: High On Fire ‘The Art Of Self Defense’ [Reissue]

Way back in the summer of 2000, the much-fabled CMJ music festival came to Seattle. A music industry showcase, and if you got to participate, it meant some good exposure for bands to music industry types. There were different underground labels showcasing bands at various venues around town. Most people I knew were excited about the Sub Pop showcase, which featured bands like The Murder City Devils, The Makers, Love As Laughter, and other bands in the garage rock and indie vein.

High On Fire 'The Art Of Self Defense' [Reissue] Artwork

I, however, was excited about the Man’s Ruin showcase (RIP Frank Kozik), as I had then-recently dove head-first into rediscovering my love of the riff, and all that is underground heavy after a half-decade of garage rock and punk. My good friend informed me that Matt Pike, the guitarist from Sleep, who I had uncovered during my pre-Seattle days, had a new band called High On Fire, and they were playing the Man’s Ruin showcase, alongside Acid King and Porn (Men of) as their debut record, The Art Of Self Defense, had been released a few months prior.

There weren’t many people at the show, but I remember vividly being utterly crushed by the sheer volume and heft that Pike’s new band wielded. Also, that show remains, to this day, one of the loudest I’ve ever attended. Needless to say, I purchased The Art Of Self Defense that night from the merch booth, and High On Fire has gone on to become one of my all-timers and a true trailblazer in heavy music for the last twenty-plus years.

Now, in celebrating the band’s twenty-fifth anniversary, MNRK Heavy is re-releasing The Art Of Self Defense, which has been long out of print. The reissue features a new mix by original producer Billy Anderson, as well as a remaster by Justin Weis. The new mix removes some of the murk of the original Man’s Ruin release, thus unveiling sounds that were lost in the clouds of reverb on the original. In particular, original bassist George Rice’s playing is so much clearer that it makes tracks like opener Baghdad, as well as Blood From Zion, and Master Of Fists rumble that much harder. And with the bass clearer, it accentuates Pike’s dragon-slaying riffs, and original drummer Des Kensel medieval pummeling, all the more. Additionally, Rice’s immortal bassline on 10,000 Years and his intro and playing on Fireface are even more malevolent sounding, if that’s even possible.

Kensel’s drumming, always underrated, is even more crushing in the new mix. I’ll gladly die on the hill that Kensel belonged in the conversation as one of the best drummers in underground heavy of the last twenty years, and perhaps he might have been the one to replace Bill Ward during the Sabbath reunion. Then, there’s the man himself, Mr. Pike. At this point, there’s really no disputing that he belongs in the conversation, right next to Tony Iommi, as one of the greatest guitarists, both as a riff lord and face-melting shredder, in the entire realm of heavy metal and its subgenres.

the remix and remaster is pretty awesome, everything is much crisper, and as a result of the instrumentation being clearer, the songs are all the more powerful…

Here, on their debut, the strains of Pike’s original band, Sleep, are still evident. Baghdad is a prime example of this, as he hadn’t yet begun to perfect his Iommi-meets-Motörhead stoner-thrash that has been a preferred sonic attack that began, I’d argue, around High On Fire’s third album Blessed Black Wings. Pike’s riffs are, of course, massive, as every single song is an exercise in being hammered by earth-shaking riffs. Twenty-five years in, I’ll still say that Pike’s riffs on 10,000 Years, Blood From Zion and Fireface are some of the best of his legendary career, and time has not diminished the impact of his ripping solos that are scattered all over The Art Of Self Defense.

There’s some interesting bonus material, including the demos of Blood From Zion, 10,000 Years and Master Of Fists, as well as instrumental versions of all the tracks, which are no less impactful, minus Pike’s gravelly roar. All in all, the remix and remaster is pretty awesome, everything is much crisper, and as a result of the instrumentation being clearer, the songs are all the more powerful. However, the remix does take some of the charm away from the murky-as-fuck, yet heavier-than-shit power of the original Man’s Ruin release.

Also, it begs the question as to why Billy Anderson didn’t record The Art Of Self Defense this way in the first place. Obviously, times have changed, as has technology, but I always thought that both of the Anderson-produced records, The Art Of Self Defense, and its follow-up, 2002’s Surrounded By Thieves sounded like Anderson was recording them through a haze of weed-smoke.

This reissue is a nice gift for longtime fans, as well as the curious looking to explore Pike’s older material as we await the release of the new High On Fire record featuring now-longtime bassist and songwriter Jeff Matz (Zeke, Mutoid Man) and new drummer, and really the only one who, in my opinion, could fill Kensel’s shoes, Coady Willis (Murder City Devils, Big Business, Melvins). Enthusiastically recommended.

Label: MNRK Heavy
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Scribed by: Martin Williams