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Monday, Oct. 11, 2010

High on Fire w/ Torche and Kylesa @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Oct. 6, 2010

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At some point in the early 21st century it became cool to like heavy metal again. Pelican, Isis, Jesu and other “thinking man’s” metal bands brought a sort of indie aesthetic to a genre that was previously defined by denim jackets, three-quarter-length sleeve concert tees, acne and one tempo: galloping. But metal is now respectable, with short haircuts, ambient instrumental breaks and perhaps the most un-metal attire of all, sweaters (Pelican, I’m looking at you).

Yet sometimes I miss the all-out metal bands of my youth, bands whose closest nod to anything other than serious shredding being a healthy respect for the brutality of hardcore punk. In many ways, Oakland-based High on Fire is a throwback to these halcyon days of head-banging, as they are not a band that over-analyzes things. Instead, they are content to steamroller audiences with riffs that could be soundtracks to some Nordic death march. Led by vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike—who came onto the stage already shirtless, long hair down his back—High on Fire tore through a set featuring a host of tracks from their latest stellar album, 2010’s Snakes for the Divine. Pike, in peak condition for metal after a brief tour with his first band, the seminal stoner rockers Sleep, expertly played off of the crack rhythm section of Jeff Matz (bass) and Des Kensel (drums). This was a band operating on all cylinders.

But what made High on Fire’s stop in Milwaukee all the more worthwhile were the two opening acts, Torche and Kylesa. On any given night either of these acts could headline a show in the city. The last time Torche played Milwaukee (a summer show at the Borg Ward), they had second guitarist Howard Johnston in tow. They are back to being a three-piece, and their sound was nowhere near as full as it was back in August. After opening with a selection of tracks from their breakthrough album Meanderthal (2008), the band settled into a set list that drew heavily from newer material. The band seems to be moving away from the “pop metal” of their first album, heading into darker territory (think post-My War Black Flag). The new direction is promising, but the band came across as somewhat tentative and unsure of themselves, as if they’re still in the process of figuring out where to go next.

Kylesa, however, was the evening’s biggest surprise. I’ll admit that I’ve paid little attention to the band since its 2002 self-titled debut. But the group has grown into a powerful unit that draws liberally from heavy metal, crust punk and even early Pink Floyd. The haunting vocals and expert guitar work of Laura Pleasants meshed well with the band’s two drummers, producing a sound that was both loud and nuanced. I look forward to seeing them at the top of the bill next time they hit Milwaukee.

Photos by Dale Reince