Live: High on Fire set the Factory ablaze (20/7/14)

Matt Pike is the best all around metal guitarist since Tony Iommi. The man is a certified riff factory, a blistering soloist, and an absolute technician. Pike has set the standard for smoke-laden sermons for the past two decades, preaching the holy virtues of the green leaf. Now that Sleep has reunited, the man is conquering the world on two fronts, with no sign of slowing down. Tonight, Sydney’s Factory Theatre was bludgeoned into submission by Pike’s sludge machine, High on Fire. This is the second time High on Fire have graced Australian shores in support of 2012’s excellent De Vermis Mysteriis, and their distortion soaked attack hasn’t dulled in the slightest. With local metallic hardcore outfit Gvrrls and sludge heroes I Exist in tow, tonight could go down as one of the heaviest gigs of the year.

The evening began with an ambient instrumental passage courtesy of Gvrrls, before they ripped into a short set of doom-flavoured metallic hardcore. Competent though they were, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were out of place opening a night of riff-driven sludge. As is often the case, though, there was one dedicated hardcore kid up the front flailing about like he’s trying to bat away a wasp. I found myself watching the vocalist for long periods of time, simply because he didn’t do much of anything in between screaming into the microphone, his eyes pinned to the floor. A support band’s job is to get the crowd riled up for the headliner, yet Gvrrls seemed content to merely play their set and get out of there. I’m struggling to remember if the front-man addressed the crowd even once between songs, which either speaks to my poor memory, or this band’s astonishing inability to leave any kind of impression. Gvrrls have the potential to make a mark in the emerging ‘hardcore-goes-doom’ trend in the Sydney scene, but they’ll need to learn how to command a stage first.

Exist upped the anti with their three-way guitar attack, pummelling the audience with their Palm Desert indebted doom. Employing a more traditional variety of sludge metal, I Exist interpret the art of heavy in much the same way as High on Fire, albeit with a hardcore vocalist at the helm. Despite having injured my sternum the day before, I found myself up the front headbanging along with a number of similarly impressed punters, who would no doubt be visiting the merch desk afterwards to buy a CD and shirt. The band are fast and tight, and their use of three guitars creates a wall of distortion rivalling the headliner. Unlike Gvvrls, I Exist are clearly seasoned performers, commanding the stage and engaging the audience both during and in between songs. I went into this having heard nothing but positives about the band, and my expectations were not only met, but completely destroyed. If you’re a fan of sludge metal, I heartily recommend checking out I Exist, who should soon see themselves the flag-bearers for Australian doom on the world stage.

I have long considered Gojira the heaviest band on the planet, but after having seen High on Fire live I am left with no choice but to revisit this question. Nothing could’ve prepared me for how earth-shatteringly heavy High on Fire are live. Shirtless as ever, Matt Pike and co. walked onstage with little fanfare, the band launching straight into ‘Fury Whip’ and kick-starting an hour and a half of unrelenting riff savagery. I could not have picked a worse time to be without earplugs, High on Fire being rivalled only by Motorhead in terms of sheer volume. Impending deafness wasn’t about to stop me from screaming the title straight back at Pike as the song reached its devastatingly distorted crescendo, though. Wasting no time, the band moved straight into Surrounded by Thieves’ favourite, ‘Eyes and Teeth’, satiating long-time fans before the onslaught of new material began.

‘Smooooooke weed!’ growls Pike, as De Vermis Mysteriis favourite, ‘Fertile Green’, kicks into high gear. The relentless velocity of the track is a sharp reminder that High on Fire has not, and likely will not, slow down with age. The band cleverly replicate the album sequencing by following up with the plodding epic (and personal favourite), ‘Madness of an Architect’. This is undoubtedly a highlight of the evening, the crawling loudness seeping into every wall of the room. Through this song, Pike has perfected the art of the dirty blues lick, slowly bulldozing the mesmerized mass before him. The band then tore through Blessed Black Wings cut ‘Cometh Down Hessian’, before wheeling out a blistering rendition of Snakes for the Divine highlight, ‘Frost Hammer’. Having been taken out of the set-list in recent times, the latter was an awesome addition to what must surely be the best set-list of the tour. High on Fire pulled out all stops, playing The Art of Self Defense favourite, ‘Baghdad’, Blessed Black Wings’ ‘Devilution’, and De Vermis Mysteriis opener, ‘Serums of Liao’.

The evening was not without its hiccups, however, with sound issues persisting throughout the evening. Matt Pike politely addressed the sound technician on several occasions, searching in vain for an even mix. As is usually the case in small venues across Sydney, the closer one got to the stage, the harder it was to hear the vocals. One day someone will find a solution to this epidemic, but for the time being its best to set up near the soundboard. Any complaints fell away at the show’s close, however, as Pike and co. surprised everyone with a colossal rendition of The Art of Self Defense epic, ’10 000 Years’, before the standard finishing number, ‘Snakes for the Divine’. If there is a more punishing one-two punch in encore history, I’ve not heard it (if you have, email me at msturtridge@gmail.com). Seeing High on Fire is the closest you can get to musical orgasm without your eardrums spontaneously combusting – and I can’t wait until next time.