High on Fire

at the Double Door, July 11

Interviewer: “Do you ever practice?”

Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath guitarist: “No.”

We do not yet know what makes metal heavy. The music itself was invented by accident, by people who demonstrably did not know what they were doing and had no idea what it would turn into. The classic rock bio Hammer of the Gods reveals that Led Zeppelin thought they were playing folk music. They compared themselves to delicate eccentrics like Dr. Strangely Strange, but they’re remembered today as a rampant sonic phallus. In the bat-biting apology video Don’t Blame Me, Ozzy Osbourne testifies that Black Sabbath were just a blues band disgusted and ultimately confused by the Summer of Love. In retrospect they’ve become the 70s’ best inducement to take downs, kill cats, and submit to Satan’s prong. What was going on here? Sabbath and Zeppelin do share things: drugs, self-pity, a compulsion to flog the living fuck out of the blues. But they had those in common with James Taylor.

Two things early metal bands did not have in common with James Taylor: they were excruciatingly loud and they were “stupid,” meaning lots of lower-class white kids liked them. This says a lot about what the music meant to people, but not much about the music itself. The charge of stupidity goes along with the idea that heavy music is somehow close to the body: mook rock is considered preverbal because high school dropouts can’t spell. But all taste in music, as in food, involves primitive bodily experience: why do you think they call it taste? The charge just reflects the way elites imagine themselves–they play the soul to the rest of the population’s body. Defenses of the music as “primal” are always really about the defender’s relationship to mooks.

It’s no accident that the writers who first “got” metal were heavily mook-identified and dug incoherence. Robert Christgau, the “dean” of American rock criticism, had an obsession with the visceral that was whiningly cerebral: he took pains to remind you that you could, and indeed really ought to, get down to this rock ‘n’ roll stuff. He made fun itself into a strenuous type of upper-middle-class self-actualization. But Christgau’s writing never evoked a physical connection to his person, other than the rumors that he only had one nut. His opposite number, the fat, sloppy Lester Bangs, ass whacked on cough syrup, actually wrote like a fat, sloppy guy with his ass whacked on cough syrup. Smelling bad was an aspect of his literary style. Guess which one dug Black Sabbath?

Neither of them, however, could explain the music. When he first used the term “heavy metal” in print in 1971, “Metal” Mike Saunders was describing Sir Lord Baltimore’s ridiculously bottom-heavy debut album, observing that Kingdom Come “seems to have down pat all the best heavy metal tricks in the book.” That’s as close to a founding moment as you can find, but it’s hollow–it consists of copying a bunch of superficial junk from other bands.

So let’s cut to the epicenter of 70s density, the verifiably heaviest fucking thing in the universe, Buffalo’s “The Prophet” (off 1973’s Volcanic Rock). I can tell you exactly why this song is good. Its spine is a single guitar drone as massive and rich as a trough of frosting. The hook is mesmerizing because it consists of nothing more than bending up from and back down to a single ringing, smoky tone. The rhythm section quivers and slams beneath it and David Tice’s preacherlike gargle clambers up and down from that same single note, shrieking about Moses on the mountain like waves on a sea of lava. A triumph of crude unison, the payoff is a stunning harmony of texture between the guitar’s giant hum and the singer’s gravelly roar. The vocal melody and guitar line are in counterpoint, not slavishly following each other, which gives the song a dynamic utterly unlike Ozzy and Tony Iommi’s equally weird singsong on “Iron Man.” Proto-punk? Get lost. “The Prophet”‘s sheer sustain reduces the Stooges and MC5 to thin, twitchy wank.

I know why “The Prophet” is as close to God as a rock song can get, but I’m not sure if that helps with the question at hand. The heart of Volcanic Rock is a particular cognitive trick that’s not unique to metal. As musician and writer J. Niimi Web-logged recently about a much more avant-garde song, Bailter Space’s tonal firebomb “X,” that one note is the hook. The miracle lies in a musical effect you can find equally in James Brown, Sleep, or Arnold Dreyblatt: a single beat or pitch spun into a whole song. The trick linking funk, metal, and avant-garde drones together is when the riff is actually the same all the way through, forcing you to watch how you progress as the song remains the same. You’re mesmerized, more aware of being alive. But is that metal?

It’s sure not what people think of when you mention Black Sabbath. Over the past 30 years they’ve been a bottomless source of inspiration for triumphantly miserable voices like Dinosaur Jr and Black Flag, paradoxical winners like Metallica and Nirvana, and hate-filled avant-gardists like Earth and Neurosis. Derided as witlessly negative when they first appeared, Sabbath were so simultaneously weird, hurt, and powerful that millions of people drank their essence to the dregs, and neither the band, nor their record label, nor the few critics of the time who loved them could ever really articulate why. Lester Bangs rummaged across two 1971 issues of Creem and came up empty: they were “the first truly Catholic rock ‘n’ roll band,” he offered. They were “humanists” at heart. Uh, OK.

Maybe there was no secret to get; maybe it was uncomfortably obvious. Nobody except critics and bohemians liked cool, evil bands like the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. Sabbath was the first horribly negative rock music that lots of people loved.

What made Black Sabbath black was that their poisonous, demagogic rhetoric came straight from intensely confused hearts: unlike cool bands people never thought were stupid, Sabbath’s music wasn’t uncompromisingly negative; their negativity was sincerely and utterly compromised by their ponderous, obsessive imagery: it was just so gauche. From the church organ on “Children of the Grave” that’s straight out of a Hammer horror flick to Ozzy’s elbow-in-the-ribs voice-overs of “Smoke it!…Get high!!” on “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath,” they were able to fold deep darkness into utter schlock because they really were that confused. There’s nothing more viciously nihilistic than Master of Reality’s kickoff track, where Ozzy testifies that his “life was empty” before he started smoking massive quantities of pot. The pathos is only half-accidental; it both kicks you in the crotch and makes you want to giggle. Having coupled a tonic drone to a lumbering, shameless blues tarted up in complex structures, Sabbath felt overloaded and out of control: fumbling, obvious, heavy.

High on Fire is a purified Sabbath. The band was started in 1998 by Matt Pike, guitarist of Sleep, who are legendary for blowing their London Records contract recording the vast, weirdly soothing 52-minute “Jerusalem,” a biblical hymn to marijuana. But it seems like it should have existed before the 70s: my gut instinct is to place High on Fire on some evolutionary way station between Black Sabbath and ripping someone’s arm out of its socket and beating them to death with it. But that’s an aesthetic effect too.

Their second album, Surrounded by Thieves, opens with a minute-long bass rumble that comes closer and closer until the entire band, acting as a single rhythm instrument, jumps up and tramples you. A song like “Speedwolf” takes an elaborate rhythm that would be labeled “progressive” if it were slower or cleaner and pumps it to the gills with crank: you wouldn’t dream of asking what a “speedwolf” is for fear you might miss a beat and get bitten. The guitar solos on their first album, The Art of Self Defense, sounded like melodies being wrung out of strings about to break; on Surrounded, the melody’s gone and they twist like snapped power lines. “Razorhoof” flickers between a waltz-time lope and a 4/4 gallop: the whole album evokes the feeling of being chased. It ends with the drums veering higher and higher into the red until they cut out sounding exactly like the guitar, and you’re torn between wanting to stand back and get closer. If it were a rotting log instead of a compact disc it could not feel more primitive. Except if a snake crawled out. The lyrics don’t read like Conan the Barbarian novels so much as notes for a Conan the Barbarian novel, written in a trance: “Ancient relic reveals secrets. Transform human beyond mortal. Learnt forboding, sacred tempest. Up to their bridles in blood.”

At the Double Door, I was ready to be handed my ass, but it all seemed boringly perfected. I showed up in a band shirt. No one else had one. Was I “surrounded by posers”? High on Fire’s relentless volume and the unending ONE-two-three pound just felt stifling. With the warmth of their handmade amps jacked up to an irritating high midrange by the club sound system, I was dying to hear some unevenness, confusion, or open space. What I got was a free Jack ‘n’ Coke (it being Jack nite). I wandered compulsively. Near the end I was standing next to a table with two bikers reservedly nodding to the music, when the band started playing the first song of the night I’d never heard before. I’m not sure if they were just saturated with the sheer headbangingness of it all or whether there was something in the song, but the hairy one looked at the bald one’s sunglasses, chortled, and pulled his goggles down over his face. That did it. Quickly all three of us were banging our heads, the two of them laughing, the one with hair flailing it. For the finale Matt Pike announced their only cover of the night, Celtic Frost’s barbarian-rock touchstone “The Usurper.”

Celtic Frost was one of a series of 80s bands from Germanic countries whose sheer rickety thud made Sabbath look like Wilco. While indie rock was having its smart, nervy heyday in the U.S., bands like Destruction and Sodom were cutting loose utterly dyslexic and none-too-competent rhythms and recording songs like “Blasphemer,” with its crowning verse of “MASTURBATE TO KILL MYSELF.” The square-wheeled rhythms of Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion are all over Surrounded by Thieves like a cheap suit. Suddenly I felt those square wheels moving with limitless horsepower. Suddenly the band couldn’t possibly play loud enough. Suddenly it felt entirely metal. I almost got vertigo from doubling my whole body again and again and then it was over. As the crowd started stomping and clapping for an encore, Pike collapsed against his amp with a piteous cry: “This is the second guitar that’s broken!” The hairy biker stood up, announced another Celtic Frost tune: “Morbid Tales…MORBID TAAAALES!!!” and stalked off with his buddy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.