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Pearls and Brass; High on Fire

Talking Head, Jan. 28; The Ottobar, Feb. 1

Christopher Myers
LONG LIVE ROCK . . . : Matt Pike flips his sweaty mane at the Ottobar.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 2/8/2006

“Are you sure this is the place?” a woman shouted into her cell phone outside the Talking Head as openers Long Live Death plucked out a morbid vamp inside. “There’s some acoustic death thing going on inside, and this doesn’t look like our kinda crowd.”

Her date shushed her, but she had a point. One of the little remarked upon side effects of metal leaking into indie rock’s bloodstream is opening-act irritation. Metal bands tend to play on bills of three or four or five acts of a similar make and model. You don’t roll up to a Mayhem show expecting four guys in cardigans to be the warmup.

Pearls and Brass aren’t going to be mistaken for corpse-painted Norwegians any time soon, but their boozy/bloozy hard rock and the anticipation for some Big Riffs made Long Live Death’s drama-club drama feel like it had wandered in from an adjoining show. Likewise, guitarist Jack Rose can obviously play, but, clad in a T-shirt advertising his spiritual hero John Fahey—laying it on a bit thick there, actually—his modal runs and ragtime ragas up and down his acoustic guitar were swallowed up by endless bar chatter. Subtlety is always the first causality of playing for drunks.

So it was almost a relief when Pearls and Brass rolled their amps onstage and plugged in. As for the music itself, it felt good, not great, though definitely thicker and more viscous than their recent album The Indian Tower. When they kicked up the tempo, they thrilled; when they dropped into a boot-scootin’ sludge boogie, they meandered. Drummer Josh Martin was definitely the big draw, firing off polyrhythmic runs that refused to be swallowed up by the guitar and bass. If its not quite as heavy as Black Sabbath (hardly a crime), it certainly remembers how central groove was to what made Sabbath great. And unlike, say, Dead Meadow—mining a similar stoner-for-the-indie-kids vein—the three members of Pearls and Brass look older than 12 and like they weigh more than 200 pounds collectively.

High on Fire’s Matt Pike, on the other hand, looks like he could eat Pearls and Brass whole and still have room to drink the remainder of the gravy boat. And there was no opening-act irritation; all three support bands sported a different shade of metal’s basic black, from Buried Inside’s prog-hardcore to the playful crunch of Big Business and the tight-shirted screamo of the Bronx. And the audience of bearded thirtysomethings and nubile teenagers with bottle-black dye jobs was as into it as could be expected on a cold first night of February. The Bronx even managed an old-school circle pit, despite its lead singer looking like a C.H.U.D. in girl jeans.

“Wake the fuck up!” Pike shouted at least twice during High on Fire’s set, deeming the audience reaction unsatisfactory. (“Thanks for being fuckin’ metal,” he grinned when they finally roared back their approval loud enough.) Pike looked far more fuckin’ metal than anyone in the audience, his lithe body perched one foot on the monitor, hair whipping around, big ol’ walrus muttonchops framing the pained orgasmic grimace of the true fretwanker. The band burned across its three studio albums, from the dull knife-edged rumble of The Art of Self-Defense to the razor-tipped attack of Blessed Black Wings. Though pioneering the slo-mo grind so many metal bands are enamored with in the 21st century with his first band, Sleep, Pike has since relearned the need for speed, merging the whiplash attack of death metal with the heft of doom. At times you could feel Joe Preston’s bass rumble right up your legs and into your tummy.

“This is a song about your enemy George Bush,” Pike announced before a blistering take on “Nemesis.” It drew some boos—metal dudes being less conservative than apolitical—and the audience was indeed sluggish throughout. Still, if the measure of any metal show is how sweaty the band’s lion’s manes get, then High on Fire’s set was a success, Pike’s hair gone stringy from perspiration and his white wife-beater soaked through. “This is your encore,” he seethed before ever leaving the stage, launching into a medley that sucked “Razor Hoof,” “Devilution,” and others into a churning slop of riffs and blast beats. Then it was over, house lights up and crowd dispersed, not much challenged after four hours of nonstop metal, but hey, at least they got their money’s worth.

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