When Rolling Stone asked Matt Pike about the lyrical concepts behind Luminiferous, High on Fire’s seventh studio full-length, The Shirtless One outed himself as an apparent conspiracy theorist; “Lyrically, I think this is the album that’s going to basically get secret people to shoot me,” he said. “We’re being manipulated on a daily basis. And yes, 9/11 was an inside job, but that’s like the least of my fucking worries.
“Wake up, it’s happening,” he continues in the album’s press release. “All while we stare at a socially engineered lie we think of as normalcy. Unless we wake from the dream, there will come true doom.”
Those are levels of paranoia on par with the crazy-haired Ancient Aliens guy. But Pike — a known chain-yanker — also goes on to cite David Icke’s truly far-fetched reptilian hybrid theory. So, it’s possible that he’s just fucking with people for the sake of a hilarious publicity campaign. (Or is he?) After all, Pike’s always philosophized better with his riffs than his words. In the past, when asked about the meaning of his songs, he’s replied with something to the effect of “they sounded like cool lyrics for a metal song.” And, conspiracy theories have historically made for cool metal lyrics (i.e., “Hangar 18”).
But even if he’s trolling, it does seem like Pike’s got more to say this time around. Whereas 2012’s De vermis mysteriis was a barrage of incomprehensible, unrelenting hardcore sludge, Luminiferous feels more like a collection of tightly crafted songs, spanning the stoner metal spectrum from atmospheric doom to fast-paced Motörhead-inspired punk metal. 2010’s Snakes for the Divine is the only time we’ve heard this much variety on a High on Fire album, and it’s also the only other time Pike’s vocals have been a dominant element in the mix.
Opener “The Black Plot” serves as the thesis to the anarchist manifesto that is Luminiferous, kicking off with one of High on Fire’s patented crushing breakdowns before picking up a d-beat pace. Through his gurgling howl, which sounds especially gurgly on this album, Pike rants about the “poison years” caused by chemtrails, the reptilian overthrow, and, presumably, the enslavement of an unknowing humanity. Cool metal lyrics? Oh, yes. Just don’t take them too seriously.
It’s the riffs that define a High on Fire album, and Pike brings them in spades on Luminiferous. Even on the weaker tracks here — the blah mid-tempo of “The Sunless Years” and the tiring “Carcosa”, which overstays its verse/chorus pattern for one too many repetitions — Pike’s riffing remains inspired and entertaining. It’s safe to call him a virtuoso in that regard, and there’s an eagerness and excitement to his playing. A “What will he do next?” effect sets in, and we listen transfixed, waiting on whatever new sounds he strains from his Les Paul.
The genius behind Pike’s guitar work can be reduced to three elements. First, he’s an expert tone constructionist, mastering the art long ago on Sleep’s Jerusalem and Dopesmoker albums. His notes purr and snarl and always ring out with just the right amount of sustain and reverb (captured with ultra-clarity on Luminiferous by producer Kurt Ballou). Secondly, he is economic, applying Miles Davis’ logic — It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play — to heavy metal and accidentally creating the stoner metal genre in the process. And, lastly, he has an unbridled penchant for the badass, exuding it on stage, with his pants slung low and guitar slung lower, and on record.
The title track is particularly engaging, channeling De vermis mysteriis with its chugging rhythms and brutal speed. Without warning, Pike unleashes a vintage Kerry King solo that splits the groove like a chasm in the earth, his notes pouring out like molten innards. Likewise, the satisfyingly sluggish “The Cave” moves at a tectonic pace, more heavy psych than metal. It also features a rare bit of singing from Pike, who sounds like Scott “Wino” Weinrich amidst a hazy vocal effect. The change works nicely in the context of the album.
Perhaps reducing Luminiferous to the one-word assessment of “badass” is a lazy criticism, but I honestly believe that’s all Pike and High on Fire are going for when they set out to make a record. They’re a pretension-free bunch, and except for some hokey concepts about the Reptilian Elite and our eventual demise at the hands of a corrupt world government, Luminiferous is yet another successfully badass entry in Pike’s canon. Here’s hoping the Illuminati doesn’t take him out for exposing their dark secrets.
Essential Tracks: “Luminiferous”, “The Cave”