Mad Men’s Donald Draper would be proud – as marketing concepts go, Converse Rubber Tracks has to be one of the best out there. Opened three years ago, it’s a Brooklyn-based studio where up-and-coming bands can apply for free recording time.
There are also regular free-with-RSVP gigs by established artists with support slots from bands who have recorded at the studio. Say what you like about corporate involvement in music (Converse is now owned by Nike, after all), but anything that gives fledgling acts more of a chance and promotes a diverse range of live music for absolutely nothing can only be a good thing.
High On Fire’s gig tonight – also free with RSVP – is part of that project, and part of the first ever Converse Rubber Tracks tour. And if tonight is anything to go by, it’s likely something that will be happening much more frequently. Because the stoner-metal trio from Oakland, California, are on blistering form. Shirtless from the beginning, beer belly, butt crack and back tattoo proudly on display, vocalist guitarist Matt Pike leads the deafening charge from the beginning, cranking out guitar solos and terrorising with authority and control. Drummer Des Kensel barely breaks a sweat despite an hour-plus of incredibly tight and fast and heavy playing, while bassist Jeff Matz commands his instrument to rumble at deafening, stomach-churning volume. Separate them, and they’re three powerful yet disparate forces – watching them play is almost like watching three entirely random musicians just do their own thing irrespective of each other – yet they somehow combine to create the most monolithic and intense wall of noise.
They begin with Fury Whip, an unforgiving onslaught of riffage and, when Pike starts singing, rough, relentless growling that bounces off the walls of the sizeable venue. There’s little fanfare, few theatrics, just three exceptional musicians doing what they do extremely well. It’s full of soul and aggression, but it also looks utterly effortless – quite a feat given how complex and fast these songs are. Yet despite the blistering pace, there’s a soothing cadence to get lost in too – Madness Of An Architect sounds like the world cracking apart before it self-destructs, but let yourself get swallowed up by the nightmares that unfurl and it’s oddly calming, weirdly comforting. Baghdad, Divilution and Fireface are equally enthralling and impressive, each one an unleashing of an unstoppable Hell into the venue – and probably outside it too, given that the walls appear to be shaking during them – but it’s final song Snakes For The Divine that truly epitomises just how great a live band High On Fire are. Starting with one of Pike’s impossibly technical guitar lines, it grows into a beast of epic proportions, settling into a disruptive groove that tears you apart while also nursing the wounds it creates. Even more epic live than on record – and played to absolute perfection, too – it feels like it spans an eternity, but at the same time it’s over all too quickly, its phenomenal power little more than a memory and a dull but loud ring in the ears of a crowd who might not have paid for this gig, but got something absolutely priceless anyway.