By: Chris Pacifico
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.
"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."
| High on Fire's Matt Pike|
"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.
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Photo of Matt Pike Dirt Junior
It's like a really spiritual thing for me. It's a release of anger. I'm just expressing myself through my instrument.
"For me, it's like I'm kind of pissed but having fun. Just look out and get out of my way because for the next 60 minutes I just want to blow you away," says Kensal. "Now, being 34, I've got to prepare myself, mentally and physically, for the hour and fifteen minute workout that I get."
Pike considers his inspiration and tells us, "It's like a really spiritual thing for me. It's a release of anger. I'm just expressing myself through my instrument."
| High on Fire by Jason Bergman|
The lion's share of Communion's tracks were road tested over six months before High on Fire retreated to Seattle with producer Jack Endino's (Nirvana, Soundgarden) for three weeks to "tighten them all up," according to Kensal. Pike laughs about how Endino encouraged them to "not be lazy," adding, "I think we found a very good chemistry. I've worked with Billy [Anderson] and [Steve] Albini before. I had good chemistry with them but this was something a little different, like he really was into the project he was doing."
"We really try to capture what we sound like live but in the studio, just kind of detail it. Polish it up but get the live, raw grit sound to it [too]," Pike says. "We work on guitar tones really hard, and on how we'd exactly like the drums to sound [as] if we were playing live but polishing it so it sounds like a good record."
Every good record is made up of good songs, and Death Is This Communion is no exception. Much of the lyrical symbolism pertains to Pike and his bandmates' life of nonstop touring. "Half my life I spend on tour and most of the shit I write is pretty much about my life in some sort of metaphorical way or not. It definitely goes into my playing, and I could say the same for the other guys," he comments.
| High on Fire's Matt Pike|
Prior to and during recording Communion Pike was reading writer David Icke, whose work is riddled with conspiracy theories about who and what manipulates societies, including shape shifting reptilian humanoids that have been roaming and covertly ruling the Earth since the era of Atlantis. Icke is clearly the inspiration behind the sloping guitar fog of "Cyclopian Scape." However, the industrial punk meets Motorhead charge of "Rumors of War" was spawned by America's penchant for fear mongering to justify its actions. "It's very much about the state of our country and how we're starting shit with the rest of the world," points out Pike.
While High on Fire can't quite be labeled as black metal, they still reign supreme to the fans whenever they make a tour stop in Denmark, Norway, or Sweden. "It's really weird," laughs Pike. "All the black metalers and Viking dudes and shit fucking love us. Every time we go to Scandinavia we definitely have seen the crowd get bigger and bigger."
High On Fire will spend the bulk of 2008 on the road bringing the fury to their fans across the globe. While no details have been released for the next album, Pike assures us they'll keep things interesting.
"It's supposed to jar you a little and make you think," says Pike. "It [should] draw you in and make you love the whole record and not just love one song or the hit flavor of the month. I don't write music like that."
High on Fire tour dates available here...
JamBase | Oakland
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