High on Fire’s debut ‘Self Defense’ gets earth-shaking, refined reissue treatment

I’ve been toying with adding a feature that pays homage to some of the albums that have gotten me to where I am as a fan and that have shaped heavy metal as a genre and cultural point. That way, I can better explain where I am coming from with my feelings and opinions, and I can shed a different light on some records that have been equally as formative for other people, albeit in different ways.

Not that we haven’t talked about great albums from the past on this site. We just talked up the first three Witchcraft albums that recently were re-released and also set the stage for their upcoming fourth record “Legend.” We also took a look at the classic Sleep record “Dopesmoker,” one of the most important, talked-about doom metal records in modern history that also popped up here after it got incredible reissue treatment. And while we’re not ready to go back in time just yet to talk about an old album just to do it, we do have another classic in our hands that helped get many aspects of metal to where it is today.

Southern Lord, who also did the new “Dopesmoker” package, went back to the well to bring new life to the debut High on Fire album “The Art of Self Defense.” So if you’re keeping score at home, this is the second Matt Pike-related document that’s gotten a rebuffed presentation, and like the Sleep album, this is an essential buy if you’re a doom, stoner, of just High on Fire fan. The album got a killer remastering and enhancement job by Brad Boatright, who also handled “Dopesmoker,” quite excellently might I add, and worked with other bands such as Noothgrush and OFF! If you embrace the early version of this album and detest when someone takes a classic record and spruces it up too much, robbing it of character, fret not. The album doesn’t sound prettier or more polished or anything of that nature. Instead, the record got some tweaks and twists here and there to make for a more explosive and sometimes dirtier sound, only with more clarity. It sounds just awesome, and while I always loved listening to the early take of “Self Defense,” this one hits harder and has more bite.

“The Art of Self Defense” originally dropped like an anvil in 2000 courtesy of Man’s Ruin Records, and it was the first full-length effort by Pike’s new band after Sleep pulled up the covers and shut their eyes. Unlike the trippy, sometimes totally hazy work by Sleep, High on Fire was a total bludgeoning. You can hear some ’90s-style grunge and doom influences in the guitar work and some of the melodies, but elsewhere, Pike, basisst George Rice (an unsung hero on this album), and drummer Des Kensel lower the boom, reworking the template for their muddy sub-genre moving forward. From this point on, High on Fire would become one of the most influential, respected, and explosively loud bands on the planet. Just ask my wife about their volume. We had to leave one of their shows early because she had a bad tooth, and their mountainous volume beat to a pulp the tender, damaged nerve endings that were in need of repair. Any time I mention that night, she grimaces.

From the moment opener “Baghdad” goes off like a gritty cannon, it’s clear this band is focused on demolition and pain, and they rarely let up even for a moment from there. “10,000 Years” has some great drum work by Kensel, who remains in the band to this day, penetrating guitar work that sometimes delves into Southern rock, and catchy vocal melodies that prove Pike had a knack for groove. “Blood From Zion” is just bad ass through and through, a total, unprotected piledriver that leaves you drooling. “Last” has more of the aforementioned ’90s rock feel — and not the shitty mainstream FM radio kind — and takes the foot off the gas for just a bit. But before the things ends, the band is back blowing shit up with a gallop of a pace. “Fireface” buzzes and pulsates, and Pike injects some bluesy riffs into the track, while “Master of Fists” is a total mauler, with more filthy blues, and a Rice bassline that just kills. Then we get a few added bonuses, with their gnarly cover of Celtic Frost classic “The Usurper,” which comes across grainier and meaner, and “Steel Shoe,” as well as a few demo takes, including “Blood,” “1,000” and “Master.” The alternate takes are rougher and less formulated, so it’s neat to hear where these songs were early on and how they progressed.

This is another great piece of work by Boatright to keep the musical integrity honest and not compromise its power while, at the same time, making “The Art of Self Defense” sound better and stronger. I know I’ll make heads explode at Southern Lord for saying this, but the album also sounds a million times more explosive on my iPod now. Sorry, guys. I do have the vinyl coming, if it makes you feel better. This is an excellent reissue project that’s more than worth your time, and it’s a great chance to get a new perspective on one of metal’s most important debut albums in the past two decades.

For more on the band, go here: http://highonfire.net/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.southernlord.com/highonfire.php

For more on the label, go here: http://www.southernlord.com/

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