High on Fire: Changing the Game

By: Chris Pacifico

High On Fire
In the time of the Roman Empire, punishments for serious crimes included hacking off a limb (or one's nose) or being sealed in a bag with a wild animal, which was then tossed into river rapids. If ever a band epitomized these violent sensations it's High on Fire.

When singer-guitarist Matt Pike's previous outfit, Sleep - still regarded as the "ultimate stoner metal band" by many - disbanded in the late '90s, he had big shoes to fill. Sure enough, he came through with High On Fire. Born in 1999, his new band quickly proved to be a major entity in the heady SF Bay Area metal scene.

2000's The Art of Self Defense treaded creative waters but they hit their stride with the double blow of 2003's Surrounded by Thieves and 2005's Blessed Black Wings, which pushed metal forward with their sheer force and raw, scorched aesthetic. High On Fire puts the emphasis on riffs, a doom ethos and thundering rhythms, all led by Pike's unique touch that can make his guitar resonate like a snarling beast next to his broiled voice, which he keeps from breaking down on the road with an elixir of tea, hot water, honey, lemon and whiskey.

Each High on Fire album expresses different notions of sound and tactility. Where Blessed Black Wings was barbaric and primal, a band baring its teeth for a fast kill, their newest release, Death Is This Communion (released in September of 2007), is their most ardent long player to date.

"It's the best thing I've been on, that's for sure," says Pike. Communion is engorged with psychedelic flourishes and an exotic Ottoman thrust, likely due to new bassist Jeff Matz's taste for Turkish and Middle Eastern music. Pike calls it "more controlled and melodic." He and his bandmates wanted to give the listener a kick in the ass by more intricate means this time.

High on Fire's Matt Pike
"We wanted it to have more mood swings, move up and down and kind of jerk your emotions around as opposed to it all being like a wild animal right off the bat," says Pike. "We wanted to physiologically kind of fuck with people. Not fuck with people but you know what I'm saying, it's supposed to do something to you."

"Music is an ocean. It's like endless waves hitting the shore," he says. "No wave is the same wave as the next but they look the same, a little bit. But things change over time and I think music is just evolving."

Pike is sure to give props to independent metal labels such as High on Fire's current home at Relapse Records and others like Translation Loss and Tee Pee who embrace changes within the genre. "They support bands that are kind of changing stuff as far as our whole metal family goes, or whatever label you want to give it," says Pike. "It definitely starts in the way the labels push [artists]. It's the way that it gets to the people."

As for how he interprets the term "heavy," Pike says, "[It's] technically knowing what your doing but the other part of that, eighty percent of it, is how you convey yourself through your instrument, you know, from the heart and soul. That's what heavy is."

If you want to talk heavy, then look no further than drummer Des Kensel, the colossal foundation of High on Fire whose signature detonating percussion mastery is untouched by most of his contemporaries. Anybody who's witnessed a High On Fire live show knows Kensel's mind is transported to another dimension that allows him to emanate such tremors to the audience.

Continue reading for more on High on Fire...

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