High on Fire, ‘Surrounded By Thieves’ (Relapse) ; Dredg, ‘El Cielo’ (Interscope)
These two bands probably wouldn’t recognize each other in line at the DMV. Dredg’s post-Tool opus rock courts suburban kids who have had enough of rap metal. Oakland’s High on Fire are underground thrash-sludge messiahs, the apocalypse’s doomy, amp-destroying fifth horseman. But both bands are obsessed with rewiring metal clichés while staying true to the music’s fundamentals.
Dredg’s El Cielo turns driving around L.A. without aThomas Guide into a quest for enlightenment. They evoke distant vistas–emotional, physical, spiritual, whatever–with elegant piano breaks and roomy hard(ish) rock. “Sympathy unfolds /The shell that holds / All the beauty within,” croons singer Gavin Hayes on the rambling “Same Ol’ Road.” Dredg are shooting for a Major Statement here, but the album’s weird majesty mostly calls attention to itself rather than the outside world. “El cielo” can mean “the sky” or “the ceiling,” which nicely sums up Dredg’s scattershot approach: There’s a fine line between meditating on the sublime and contemplating the cracks in the plaster.
High on Fire are more interested in shaking walls than peeling paint. Their galloping-mammoth metal has been brewing in guitarist Matt Pike’s bong since he was part of the legendary stoner-rock combo Sleep (track down 1999’s single-song epic Jerusalem, if thou darest). On Surrounded by Thieves, the trio speeds things up, as if in preparation for battle (or at least some D&D and a midnight screening of Conan the Barbarian). All massive riffs and tribal drumming, “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered” would be a call to arms if any of Pike’s fans could be bothered to get up off the couch. Later, “The Yeti” and “Thraft of Canaan” slow things down to speeds even a painkiller-numbed Ozzy could keep up with. There’s nothing “nü” or progressive about High on Fire, but that doesn’t mean they lack ambition. It just means they slice through life’s knots instead of trying to untie them.