As a band that relies on their music might alone, Oakland, CA’s own force of nature, High On Fire, have to be one of the most entertaining live trios out there. There’s no gimmicky crowd interaction, fancy lighting rigs or schmaltzy backdrops with this lot; it’s just a blizzard of hissing, crushing metal; a sonic typhoon that hits with enough force to flatten any and all sizes of crowd. If you haven’t been lucky to feel that cacophonous wall-of-sound yet, then the aptly named Spitting Fire Live is your chance to stand up, grab hold of your vitals and feel its impact.
Recorded over two nights it contains concert performances from their New York City and Brooklyn shows at the end of last year. There are 15 tracks to delve into, a solid mixture with all albums featuring, and it would be petty to lament the omission of stonking fan-favourites like “Silver Back”, the title-track from Death Is This Communion or “Bastard Samurai”. What you do get is four songs from last year’s De Vermis Mysteriis, three of them littering Volume 1, and three consecutive songs from 2007’s Death Is This Communion opening Volume 2. This leaves enough room for the big-hitters, “Frost Hammer” and the title-track, from 2010’s Snakes For The Divine to do the most damage.
One thing to consider, as with many live recordings, is the sound quality. Here, Kurt Ballou and Greg Wilkinson have done their best, but it is still a little too distorted with the vocal hollow and the strings muffled. To some degree, of course, this suits the band’s style and it is consistent, with a nice balance presented across the two sets. Where applicable, the cotton-wool crowd noise has been clipped and kept to a minimum which, considering the shortage of stage interaction, presents a bit of a problem, leaving you struggling at times to feel a part of the show. On the plus side, High On Fire’s notorious full-bodied wallop comes across with enough dynamic range for each part – bass, drums, vocals and Matt Pike’s almighty custom 9-string Lola – to be heard as separate components.
Our frontman, unsurprisingly, utters little beyond the odd song introduction (we do get an incendiary “Let’s whip things up here” and an appreciative but seemingly rhetorical “Alright, New York? It’s good to be out here!”), so instead we just get a barrel of feedback and a whole world of pain. With little distractions, you will simply glory in the pounding throb and vocal squall (perfect mosh material) of “Frost Hammer”, the hammering kick pedal and gritty churn of the punked-up “Devilution” and the glorious tumbling triplet that powers the noise-maker “Fury Whip”. In between these speeding goliaths of sludge metal there’s the stoner comedown; the neck-snapping swagger of “10,000 Nights” and “DII” – both tracks where Jeff Matz’ twanged bass comes to the fore like bubbles of oxygen in the vast lakes of mud-slicked distortion.
The mesmeric duo, “Madness Of An Architect” and “Face Of Oblivion”, played one after the other, present the blitzed-out brain of High On Fire. The howling, cosmic chug that will get your synapses snapping like trapped wasps in a jar. Naturally, in Pike, they have the perfect frontman to drag you back to Earth and his stunning guitar solos (particularly his incredible part-mnemonic, part-vibrato effort that lurks in “Fertile Green”) and his enigmatic riff that powers the band’s finishing flourish, “Snakes For The Divine”, demand your full attention.
All told, the sound quality, though bearable, may put you off. Ardent fans of the band will still lap this up; others may want to tune in first. Either way, the music is as badass as ever – seriously scary, force of nature stuff. Earthquake, volcano, tornado, tsunami, High On Fire, quicksand. I believe that’s the order.
(6.5/10 John Skibeat)