If you’re thinking that you’ve seen this before, meaning a reissue of High On Fire’s debut The Art Of Self Defense, you’d be right. In 2001, Tee Pee Records reissued the album with a couple of bonus tracks, making it easy to track down (as far as I can tell, even to this day). Still, the band saw fit to recruit From Ashes Rise guitarist Brad Boatright to do a full remastering (he also handled the update of Sleep’s infamous Dopesmoker), and tack on even more bonus tracks for a wider Southern Lord release. Far from the most essential of High On Fire albums, The Art Of Self Defense is nonetheless a walloper, and this reissue is the most complete and robust while also sporting an improved sound that will please long-time fans.
For those of you that have previously heard and devoured this album, know that the remastering effort has not only made it louder but also given it slightly more depth – the drums sound particularly revived – without losing the fatness from which the heft was originally wrought. And heft is the name of the game here – The Art Of Self Defense was, is, and shall forever be gargantuan in weight, and the update has only enhanced this facet, if not quite to the level that remastering an album from the pre-digital age might.
As for the bonus material, the two 7” songs – “Steel Shoe” and a fun cover of Celtic Frost’s “The Usurper” – are included as they were on the Tee Pee release. Also included are three demo versions of album tracks that stand well on their own, featuring a dryer, more percussive treatment that may well appeal to certain ears. None of this is material that a hardcore High On Fire fan would not have already heard, but having it all in one place certainly assists a completionist’s efforts.
To those who haven’t previously spent time amongst these syrupy waves, be forewarned that this isn’t the speed demon High On Fire you became familiar with through albums such as Blessed Black Wings, nor is it quite on that level of excellence. But as mentioned, this is amongst the heaviest and most pure stoner rock of Pike’s post-Sleep career. This is truly the shifting phase between what Pike, Cisneros, and crew did with Sleep and what would come later with High On Fire. The intent to pummel through the repetition of elephantine riffage was here from the beginning, as was Pike’s swirling and echo-laiden soloing, but it was not until later that his obsession with Motörheadish thrashing would show up to send the riffs to the races.
Nearly all of The Art of Self Defense has a mid-paced, almost laid back feel (laid back in a metal sense only of course), coming through as some of the more open jams of the band’s career. None of these songs, not even the more direct opener “Bagdad,” go for the jugular with aggression, despite the band’s delivery containing plenty of bludgeoning violence (Des Kensel was already a beast of the skins here). Instead, grooves develop, hooks are strewn in where necessary, and for the most part the band’s collective chemistry is allowed to live on its own. Tracks such as “10,000 Years” and the ludicrously heavy “Master Of Fists” live by this expanded approach, using Pike’s leads as a glue from which to flow from jam to groove and back. And while nothing here matches up with some of the band’s later classics – there is a notable lack of those essential High On Fire tracks that work like crack with their fans – there also isn’t a second to scoff at.
Overall, The Art Of Self Defense is much more than just a transitional phase between Sleep and later High On Fire. This is a purer, more leveling kind of stoner rock, like being drowned in mud before a street paver runs you over slowly and repeatedly. Those who got into the band through their speedy Stönerhead work might find this to be a tad plain, but there is a ton of fun here to discover and spin repeatedly. Even with the remaster it’s hard to recommend this to someone who already owns the previous reissue, but for any fan who has yet to purchase the album, it’s a no brainer.