REVIEW: High On Fire burns and returns in ferocious triumph to The UC Theatre

High on Fire

High on Fire performs at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco on March 29, 2016. Photos: Derek Tobias.

BERKELEY — Local heavy metal champions High On Fire returned to The UC Theatre from a year-long limbo Friday night. Following the appropriately gruesome partial amputation of guitarist Matt Pike’s toe, the band was forced to cancel multiple tours, including a spot at The UC Theatre last December.

The band kicked off with a high octane bludgeoning and maintained that intensity throughout the 14-song set. Concussive “Blood From Zion” elicited death metal vocals from Pike’s ragged throat, and Sabbath-like blues guitar solos from his Les Paul guitar. Long-time bassist Jeff Matz lurked wizard-like and compelled touring drummer Chris Maggio to conjure some brutality. The trio bred shaggy destruction via churning riffs, expert timing and masterful tone.

Pike’s saturated tone and sweltering leads transcended metal in a blaze of sheer guitar ferocity. Wringing massive sustain from his ample setup, Pike took center stage frequently and effectively. Melodic suggestions in “DII” blossomed into a gargantuan face-melting lead from the guitar titan. Compartmentalizing his Dopesmoker (of Sleep) fame, he forayed into raw Eastern scales and a monster bend to close out nuanced epic “Steps Of The Zigguraut/House Of Enlil.”

Despite a cautious beginning, Maggio did well on the more difficult songs. His attentive drumming summoned the battle-ready, hardened chugging of war allies Matz and Pike. Standing in for recently departed Dez Kensel, Maggio supported the band with the precision and propriety of a high school math teacher. As he built confidence, he hit harder, but his rhythmic sensibility was spot-on from the beginning, enabling the band’s blunt trauma sensibilities. Matz’s intrinsically heavy riffs loosed the power of crushing reality. Moreover, Pike exercised his mellow-harshing bark to give voice to the mentality of invading barbarians.


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Veterans of psychic heaviness, Pike and Matz effortlessly shrugged off riff after rhythmically unbecoming riff. Goliath guitar sounds met punkish drums and hesher nihilism in “Fertile Green” and “Carcosa.” Heavy, behemoth riffs tumbled down like concrete on “Bagdad,” while arresting fret-tapping introduced the lengthy workout “Snakes For The Divine.” Closing with the Grammy-winning “Electric Messiah,” a triumphant High On Fire then left the stage, leaving their amplifiers to perpetuate extant waveform vibrations.

Texas’ Power Trip brought a welcome punk influence along with its thrash initiative. Though the band’s songs featured many chunky breakdowns, the tenured crossover thrash quintet thankfully included many hard one-two mosh sections and raging speed metal upshots. Power Trip recalled contemporary party-thrashers Municipal Waste. Vocalist Riley Gale jumped and spun as he anticipated his cues, allowing plenty of head-banging room for his adroit band members.

Gale’s power vocals were enhanced by a subtle delay effect. Amid percussive mid-tempo tunes rooted in classic ’80s thrash, guitarists Blake Ibanez and Nick Stewart engineered blistering solos. Drummer Chris Ulsh, who was sick on Friday, adamantly maintained authoritative back-beats while incorporating burly fills. Well-executed breakdowns from the rhythm section provided a fitting soundtrack for the well-represented beards-and-beers fanbase. Power Trip rallied a zealous fan base and played a very tight set.


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Philadelphia’s Devil Master returned to The UC Theatre Friday sporting a cool new goat-devil banner. An overkill of reverb drowned some of the sonic clarity as the death-thrash ghouls persevered through a stone-faced 30-minute set. Both guitarists were shrouded in ceremonial black robes abreast a speaker cityscape of full stacks. Vague atmospherics educed grim winters and gloomy trips in echoing mental tombs. Gothic vibes accompanied the band in their woebegone transience.

Opening the show was Creeping Death, a straightforward thrash group from Dallas. Reese Alavi, the band’s articulate Iranian-American singer, blasted withering vocals between nods to Slayer and Death. Creeping Death’s slow breakdowns evinced a penchant for classic death metal.

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