High On Fire and CoC Unleash Sludge On Santa Cruz

By Avinash Mittur

December 18th 2012, The Atrium, Santa Cruz, CA: After two and a half months of killer shows in Los Angeles, I’ve made a temporary return to the bay area. Only days after arriving I was treated to a lineup I just couldn’t turn down- High on Fire, Corrosion of Conformity, Goatwhore and Lo-Pan at the Atrium in Santa Cruz. High on Fire’s latest record, De Vermis Mysteriis, has been in constant rotation for me, so finally getting to see the band play in support of it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t miss. In addition, I’ve been wanting to see the current incarnation of Corrosion of Conformity for some time now, and this show finally offered me that chance. Fans of sludge and stoner metal were treated to a consistently entertaining night of music, but those only looking to catch the headlining acts may have been disappointed with the relatively short sets.

Lo-Pan began the show with a modest, yet still enjoyable set of stoner rock taken straight out of the ’90s. Singer Jeff Martin opted to set up camp behind the drums- it certainly stunted his capabilities in working the crowd but the big man let his soulful bellow perform the communication. His singing was the highlight of the set for me, as was Brian Fristoe’s pentatonic-laced riffs. Compared to the other bands on this night, Lo-Pan’s music was relatively laid back, but that also made them an effective warm-up act for the growing crowd. While I’m not entirely sold on checking them out on a headlining date quite yet, I certainly had fun seeing them open a show like this one.

New Orleans’ road veterans, Goatwhore, were the next band to take the stage. On paper, their brand of blackened death metal is an ill-fit for a stoner metal bill, but in practice the band proved to be a wonderful addition to this already great show. The main contributing factor to this was guitarist Sammy Duet’s low, bass-heavy guitar tone. Though the music itself was of a blackened variety, Sammy’s guitar playing was perfect for sludge fans- the continuous moshing throughout the set was proof of the crowd’s satisfaction with Goatwhore. Songs like “When Steel and Bone Meet” also had enough raw riffery to satisfy even the staunchest of stoner metal fans, what is stoner metal other than celebration of great riffs after all? The stage at the Atrium was tiny, but that didn’t stop Ben Falgoust from being an extremely active frontman. He was constantly lurching about the small stage, planting his legs on the monitors and engaging the crowd frequently. Even though they had to struggle to move at times, Sammy and bassist James Harvey occasionally traded spots onstage and headbanged often. Sammy’s backing high growls were also a fine complement to Ben’s shouts. Just like the last time I caught Goatwhore, their closing number “Apocalyptic Havoc” was easily the highlight of the set.

One of the original pioneers of the sound featured at this show was now up- after a full two years of hearing about their reunion performances I finally got to see the Animosity-lineup of Corrosion of Conformity play a set. I was pleasantly surprised to see the band play a selection of songs that spanned their whole career instead of simply the ’80s crossover material. Plenty of songs from CoC’s two 2012 releases were featured, as well as a few tracks from the era when Pepper Keenan sang for the band. Of course, some tracks from Animosity were thrown in as well as the closing title track from the Technocracy EP. Bassist Mike Dean was the one to watch for old-school fans of the band. Mike’s vocals have grown leaps and bounds beyond his original performance on Animosity and hearing him sing those old songs live with his present ability was an absolute pleasure.

Drummer Reed Mullin was also a standout, his vocal performances on “Holier” and “Hungry Child” were ferocious and how he managed provide drums for a song as quick as “Holier” and sing at the same time I will never know. This current live version of “Holier” in particular, annihilates its studio counterpart. Guitarist Woody Weatherman of course didn’t contribute a whole lot in the vocal department, but his energy onstage more than made up for it. He could constantly be seen jumping about like a musician half his age and he generally couldn’t sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. The new material from the self-titled album and the even newer Megalodon EP fit in very nicely with the older stuff, with “The Doom” and the manic “Priest Brains” being the highlights among the recent songs offered. My only complaint about their set was that it was much too short, clocking in just shy of fifty minutes.

Corrosion of Conformity Set List:
1. Psychic Vampire
2. Deliverance
3. Rat City
4. Holier
5. Seven Days/Your Tomorrow
6. The Doom
7. Vote with a Bullet
8. The Moneychangers
9. Priest Brains
10. Mad World
11. Hungry Child
12. Technocracy

Finally High On Fire came to finish things off for a welcoming bay area crowd. The biggest question most fans have on their minds is whether frontman and guitarist Matt Pike’s recent stint in rehab has affected his live performance at all. To answer that question, it appears Matt’s newfound sobriety has massively affected his performances. High On Fire have always been lauded for their live shows, but Matt’s vocals have consistently been a mushmouthed wall of roars and his live soloing has been sloppy at times. This was anything but the case at this Santa Cruz date- every word that Matt belted was completely discernable and his soloing was better than ever. The man may have been a less comfortable onstage than I remember, but his playing and singing were fair trades for what used to be a wild-eyed (and probably drunken) loon. Drummer Des Kensel, one of the most underrated hitters in modern metal, was also in top form throughout the set and even threw in some extra double bass to the older songs from The Art of Self Defense and “Devilution”. Bassist Jeff Matz, who showed that he was a force to be reckoned with on High On Fire’s latest album, De Vermis Mysteriis, was nowhere near as audible as I would have liked. The guy gave one of the most outstanding bass guitar performances on the year on that record, but I was genuinely dismayed to see that he was more often than not buried under Matt’s guitar.

When it came to the set list, fans couldn’t have asked for a more comprehensive selection of tracks from High On Fire’s entire career. Long-lost fan favorites like “10,000 Years” were mixed right in with the standbys like “Rumors Of War” and “Speedwolf.” Even though De Vermis Mysteriis is easily my favorite HoF record, I feel as if the songs played from that album didn’t translate to the stage nearly as well as the older material. They were still great to hear, but they hadn’t felt as ‘lived in’ as say, “Snakes for the Divine”. It has to be noted that at only seventy minutes or so, this set was much too short. When I caught the band at this same venue one year ago, I only paid about $12 for the same length set. The ticket prices was doubled to $24 this time around, and so I was disappointed to see the band exit the stage after such a short amount of time. Regardless of these complaints though, High On Fire proved to still be a thunderous live unit. There are few sludge bands around with High On Fire’s thrashy swing, and they remain unmatched in their genre when it comes to live shows. If they can address those concerns than their live performances can truly ascend from being reliably great to genuinely transcendent. With a newly sober Matt Pike though, High On Fire are currently at their peak as a live band- if there was ever a time to catch them, now would be it.

High On Fire Set List:
1. Serums of Liao
2. Frost Hammer
3. 10,000 Years
4. Devilution
5. Last
6. Fertile Green
7. Speedwolf
8. Rumors of War
9. DII
10. Fury Whip
11. Madness of an Architect
12. Snakes for the Divine

When all was said and done, fans got to experience more than enough great music to get their time and money’s worth out of this show. While I would have certainly liked to see either CoC or High On Fire play for a bit longer, the collective efforts from all of the bands made this trek to Santa Cruz worthwhile. I’d happily patronize this tour once again, and I fully intend on doing so this coming Saturday in San Francisco.

Related: Reed Mullin audio interview