I’ll admit I approached High on Fire’s latest, Luminiferous with some trepidation. The band’s last record, De Vermis Mysteriis, was the first High on Fire album that I did not thoroughly enjoy. To my ears the album was an unfocused mess. It had its moments, but not nearly as many moments as I had grown accustomed to. Was this merely a misstep or a sign of a creative decline?
After only a few moments listening to Luminiferous’s first track, “The Black Pot,” right around the time Matt Pike let’s out a Tom G. Warrior-approved grunt, I got the impression that everything was going to be just fine. The track, with its hard-hitting riffs and driving tempo recalls “Devilution,” from the band’s classic album Blessed Black Wings, and to my ears that is a very good thing.
The reminiscing continues with “Carcosa,” which, with its beefy but un-cluttered riffs and throbbing pulse harkens back to the band’s earliest work. The track is a bit over-long at seven minutes and change, but a great solo near the end redeems it. This is a bit of a recurring theme with Luminiferous: Many of the slower paced tracks suffer in the ratio of quality riffage to running time, but Pike usually pulls a trick out of the bag at some point to save the day, such as with the enchanting theme that emerges at the close of the otherwise uneventful “The Falconist.”
Speaking of “The Falconist,” this track illuminates another of the albums shortcomings: Matt Pike sings a little too much. Hearing Pike’s gravelly, smoke-scarred voice try to carry a tune is cute for a few bars, but asking him to do more as on “The Falconist,” “The Sunless Years,” and others is an overreach and a waste. Pike is a fine growler and screamer, but he’ll always be more expressive with the axe. Fortunately, Luminiferous still has plenty of tracks where the guitar leads the way, such as the blistering “Slave the Hive” and the bludgeoning doom-riff workout of “The Dark Side of the Compass.”
While Pike’s riffs will always own the spotlight on any High on Fire record, Des Kensel’s drum performance on Luminferous deserves recognition. Kensel’s exceptional playing has become the rule in High on Fire, but he shines particularly bright on Luminferous. His drums are both thunderous and relentless; a virtual artillery barrage on every track. Credit is also due Kurt Ballou for capturing Kensel’s sound perfectly. The drums are high in the mix and punishing, but without crowding out the vocals or guitar. The bass gets the shaft, but this is metal; the bass always gets the shaft.
In the end, Luminiferous is a fine record, even a return to form of sorts, and most fans will find exactly what they are looking for on it. There is, however, no denying that there is not much on this record that High on Fire has not done before and, in many cases, done better. Whether that matters is for you to decide. Few bands are able to keep it fresh for fifteen years, and of those that do, keeping it fresh too often means losing most of what you liked them for in the first place. High on Fire might be bringing more or less the same thunder they’ve always brought, but they’re still bringing it like they mean it.