The Bay Area boasts a metal history virtually unrivaled by any other region in the U.S. You know the names: Exodus, Death Angel, Testament, Possessed, and, of course, Metallica, just to scratch the surface. Almost without fail, each of these influential acts come with a hardscrabble backstory. (Who can forget Metallica's "loser's lunch" — bologna on hand, because there was no dough for bread in those early days?)
Commercially speaking, local metal has seen its boom and bust days as well — the '80s were epic; the '90s, not so much. But Oakland's High on Fire is carrying on the storied legacy, almost single-handedly putting this locale back in the national spotlight and becoming one of the most venerated metal outfits in the country.
Singer-guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Des Kensel founded High on Fire back in 1998. They shaped a band known for visceral recordings, molten live shows, and truly heavy metal. And talk about hardscrabble. The pair has paid more dues than a loading dock of union workers. They've relentlessly toured tiny shitholes for no money, made personal sacrifices galore, and suffered bodily destruction, some of it accidental (various fractured bones, throat problems) and some of it, uh, voluntary (the band's fondness for a bit of the drink and the drug is legendary and well documented). If you count Pike's previous stint as guitarist in grinding '90s drone-metal band Sleep, he's been through more than 15 years of this stuff. Which makes High on Fire's ascension to the top of the metal heap — one that started with 2005's Blessed Black Wings, and is solidified with its staggering new Death Is This Communion — that much sweeter.
Spin, Kerrang!, and leading metal mag Decibel have weighed in with glowing reviews and features on Death is This Communion. Album sales are the best they've ever been. The band appeals to both rock-critic eggheads and Camaro-driving, dope-smoking metalhead lifers alike, and bigger venues with larger crowds are the norm on their current headlining tour.
The time and commitment Pike has put into his playing has reaped benefits beyond the quality of the band's recordings — he was recently named one of Rolling Stone's "new guitar gods," though it's a tag he plays down with an embarrassed chuckle when the topic is raised. "Well, it's nice to be appreciated," he says.
"He knows he's good, he's no fuckin' dummy," laughs Down/Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Pepper Keenan, who's known Pike since his early Sleep days. "When I first met him he was like, 'All I know is I like to pummel, I just gotta pummel,' and that echoed in my brain. He's invented his own sound, which is rare in this day and age — you can count those people on one hand. And in his own way he's made heavy music evolve for sure. There's a ton of bands chasin' his ass around, but they'll never catch him."
Speaking from a tour stop in Tennessee, the personable Pike says, "Blessed Black Wings got us into everybody's brain, you know? The first two albums [2000's The Art of Self-Defense and 2002's Surrounded by Thieves] it was real cultish, but the last one and this one have definitely reached a new crowd. It seems like everything's happening really fast now. Things are startin' to go our way ... finally."
A few nights later, High on Fire is onstage at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia. Rounded out by bassist Jeff Matz, the band spends 75 minutes throttling a receptive crowd with all the reasons they're such a powerful force in metal. Perpetually shirtless, sweaty, and supremely charismatic, Pike yanks gargantuan riffs and masterful, screaming solos out of his nine-string guitar as he growls and bellows his cryptic lyrics of demons and warriors. His myriad tattoos — wolves, griffins, skulls, crosses — are practically animated as he stalks the stage. Kensel and Matz match his intensity and brutal thunder note for note, groove for groove, and the crowd feeds off it, with fists and devil horns punching the air as a bloodthirsty circle pit opens up in the middle of the floor during new songs like "Rumors of War" and older favorites like "Baghdad."
After witnessing this performance, it's easy to see why High on Fire is so popular, but the band's pals and peers are happy to chime in about its ever-increasing appeal.
"It's their general attitude of not following current trends and sticking with more of the classic influences," says Coliseum's Ryan Patterson, who currently shares a record label (Relapse) and a tour with High on Fire. "I see them as being the Venom or Bathory or Motörhead of this era, and I respect that they can progress and be successful without having to tone it down or cheese it out."
"They're just a bunch of fuckin' heshers, man," laughs drummer Brann Dailor of Mastodon, High on Fire's "brother band" after a number of joint tours. "They're completely real; what you see is what you get. That's why we instantly hit it off and became close friends within a few days. We're all total metal nerds, into the right kind of metal: Maiden and Celtic Frost and Mercyful Fate and Slayer and Motörhead. And, you know, the same metal aesthetic — yetis and bigfoots and Vikings and shit like that."
Like so many of history's best metal bands, High on Fire combines its musical prowess with an aesthetic that gives its members an aura of mystique, power, and dread. Pike's doomy lyrics — metaphors for his personal demons, he's always quick to note — famously draw from the quasi-occult sci-fi of H.P. Lovecraft and the wild Reptoid conspiracy theories of David Icke. The band's album covers, T-shirts, even its brand of hot sauce, all offer visions of cataclysmic horror, full of "weapon-toting, acid nightmare beasts, or hazy mountains of the underworld," as longtime band artist Arik Roper puts it. "High on Fire can carry themselves on their music alone, probably more than most bands," he adds, "but a band with good music is better with good art; it's an aesthetic and it means more than people realize."
When Blessed Black Wings started to bring more attention High on Fire's way, the band intended to hit the studio again quickly. But various events conspired against that plan: Kensel required spinal surgery that put him out of commission for several months; Pike messed up his wrist and knee; and the band's second bassist, Joe Preston, quit (like original bassist George Rice, a casualty of the band's nonstop touring schedule). Pike called his buddy Hank Williams III, who recommended Seattle-ite and former Zeke bassist Matz, who soon was in town playing and writing with the core duo.
"That all kept us sittin' on our asses a little longer than we woulda liked," Pike notes of the setbacks. "We would have recorded [Communion] sooner, probably, but Des wanted to be at 120 percent and, like, all of us did. We didn't wanna go in there fuckin' addicted to Vicodin, all fucked up and shit, so we just waited and got our health back and just ended up releasing it at the end of summer instead of the beginning."
Worth the wait? Hell, yeah. Communion is the masterpiece the band and its fans were hoping for. The disc is incredibly hard-hitting and monstrous in some spots — on six-minute opener "Fury Whip," Pike leads with choleric, tar-pit-sludge riffing, but it's not long before Kensel's double-kick clobber and Matz' fillings-loosening rumble join in and turn things into a full-force thrashfest, with Pike growling like Lemmy Kilmister with . acid-blood coursing through his body. "Turk" and "Rumors of War" wallop just as fiercely, but the record offers restrained, surprisingly melodic turns as well on the arabesque, acoustic-propelled instrumental "Khanrad's Wall" and the aptly titled "Ethereal," which ain't exactly Cocteau Twins but is still more spacey and psychedelic than High on Fire's usual fist to the face. There's even Mellotron in the mix on the simultaneously pretty and roiling "DII."
At least some credit for the album's sonic experimentation must be given to producer Jack Endino. A fan of High on Fire (and Sleep) for years, and a good friend of Matz', Endino sent word to the group that he was interested doing the next recording. For its part, High on Fire — which recorded Blessed Black Wings with famed indie producer Steve Albini — was very familiar with Endino's work (300-plus albums helmed, including Nirvana's Bleach, and early Soundgarden and Mudhoney discs), and his work ethic.
"Albini's great," Kensel says. "He gets some good tones, but in the long run it's like ... I mean, he even said, 'I'm not a producer, I don't wanna have any say in what you're playing — if you think the take is good, it's good.' We wanted someone who would push us a little more than that but not be some slave-driver. We thought Jack did a real good job of that, and it shows."
Endino has no problem pushing bands to get the best sound from them. From his home in Seattle, the producer says, "People hire me to tell the truth, not to fucking bullshit them. I don't sugarcoat it. I'm kinda known for that, really. Maybe it takes some people aback at first, but once they realize I'm concentrating on what is best for this piece of music, it works fine.
"Frankly, nobody is more of a perfectionist than Matt himself," Endino continues. "We were basically seeing eye-to-eye. Half the time he was ahead of me. I wouldn't have to say anything, he'd be ready to do it again. They're professionals — they know exactly what they're doing and what they're after."
The band's friends seem certain that even greater success looms on the horizon for High on Fire. "They've always put the hard work in, and they killed it on the new record. When I heard it I was like, 'Yeah! They did it!'" Dailor enthuses. "It's just kinda down to them getting a couple breaks, and then they'll be unstoppable."
Of course, Pike has heard that before. Sleep got wined and dined by the major labels and eventually signed to London, which twice refused to release the band's third album; that was the prime cause of the band's demise.
"Sleep was already gonna be the next big thing years ago," Endino adds. "You could say there's a parallel with Josh [Homme] from Queens of the Stone Age — he went through the whole thing with Kyuss and then basically just starting over with another band, sort of like older and wiser. Matt's done the same thing with High on Fire, like, let's do it right this time, with a little more experience and seasoning."
Indeed, Pike finds his band's ever-growing profile gratifying, but he's been through too much over the years to harbor any visions of megastardom. Still, the recent accolades make High on Fire's rocky ascent easier to accept.
"If it had been too successful too soon, it might have affected the way our music turned out," Pike muses. "Definitely all that stuff affects art, that's just the way it is. You kinda hafta be tortured to be a good artist. We definitely haven't walked down an easy road, that's for sure."