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Having conquered the Bay Area, Oakland metal monolith High on Fire sets its sights on the entire nation

Wednesday, Mar 2 2005
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Thwap!

I definitely heard it, even over a dodgy cell-phone connection and the persistent background whine of a van whose transmission had seen better days. It was enough to stop singer/guitarist Matt Pike, frontman of Oakland metal behemoth High on Fire, right in midsentence.

"What ... was ... that?" I heard him bark to bassist Joe Preston, who was piloting the HOF-mobile through the outskirts of New Orleans on the way to the trio's next show in Memphis. Oblivious to it all, drummer Des Kensel was passed out in his bunk -- a casualty of post-show partying in the Big Easy's warehouse district that lasted nearly until daybreak. To that point in the conversation, Pike's amiable but sluggish drawl had suggested he was similarly hurtin', but the sudden noise definitely startled him awake.

"Dude, we just hit a big-ass bird. It smacked right into the front of the van," Pike said with a nervous snicker. "Ahhh, that's brutal. Sucks for that bird. Oh well, life is tough. There's a metaphor for ya!"

Indeed, before the interruption, Pike had been explaining how the getting-medieval-on-your-ass lyrics on the band's staggeringly great new album, Blessed Black Wings -- crammed with hell-beasts, plate-mailed warlords, dark skies, and tombs -- actually serve to cloak internal demons; that they're fantastical howls of his everyday anger, depression, and frustration. "It's not all D&D," he was saying. "There's more to it than that. It's definitely me expressing my own problems. Usually people don't know what I'm fuckin' talking about. Some people get it. I just say things in a different way, I guess."

The bloody feathers gracing their vehicle, though, supply the perfect metaphor for High on Fire's trip. Since first coming together in 1998 with original bassist George Rice (Preston replaced him last summer), the band has been the bird -- pulverized by the rigors of the road and all the scrapping and clawing necessary to get its music out to the people. Now these guys are in the driver's seat, obliterating everything in their path as they hurtle toward the top of Metal Mountain.

Although HOF's two previous albums -- 2000's The Art of Self Defense and 2002's Surrounded by Thieves -- earned the group a solid foothold in the Bay Area rock scene, it's the skull-micronizing Blessed Black Wings that's quickly putting it in the position of national metal flag-bearer. Where those earlier efforts, while undoubtedly intense, mostly reveled in a sludgy thrum, the new disc lets fly a faster, more ferocious, knife's-edge assault formed from Pike's sepulchral, sand-gargling yowl and crushing fret-grasp; Kensel's setting upon his drum kit as if it were a village and he a Viking marauder; and Preston's low-end, thunder-god glue. The sound quality is Dom Pérignon to its predecessors' Mad Dog 20/20, and you don't even have to play it to know this thing's gonna be loud -- the liner notes credit HOF's amp repairman just below engineer/co-producer Steve Albini. Wings possesses the no-bullshit heaviness of Motörhead, Sabbath, Venom, Slayer, and early Metallica, with plenty of melody and a few brief passages of clean, subdued guitar work that set you up for the next rampaging riff.

It has rightfully received sensational reviews across the board, with numerous mainstream media outlets finally taking notice of the band these past few months. Not that High on Fire was floundering in complete obscurity before, but Pike says that had the band members approached Wings with the same songwriting and recording style that characterized the first two discs, they'd probably have fallen into the same kind of creative and commercial rut that ultimately doomed his previous act, the stoner-sludge outfit Sleep, which he fronted for most of the '90s.

"We felt some pressure, for sure," he says. "This one's our third one, and I was like, 'Fuck, man, we gotta do something cool or we might as well hang it up.' Once in a while you feel that way, you get self-conscious, like, are we really doing that well? But we're doing really well on this one, and we're getting a lot of people out at the shows so far, so it's pleasing to see the work paying off. But it's hard to tell, really. I've only been out on tour for a week. Call us in another week or so and we'll let you know if it's still going good."

That's exactly what I do the following Friday afternoon, and this time I reach the animated Kensel, awake this time ("Yeah, the day after New Orleans is always shitty," he quips), while Preston navigates the band's minivan through Ohio on their steady journey back to the West Coast. That's right -- minivan.

"Yeah, our van fuckin' died in Philly, so we got us a minivan and a U-Haul trailer," says Kensel, laughing at the decidedly non-"metalness" of a Ford Windstar. "We're gonna try and see how many soccer-mom groupies we can pile in this thing."

Still, he's happy to report the band is getting more people at shows than ever before, and the energy levels have been higher than the threesome could have hoped for in the Deep South and along the East Coast, seemingly confirming that all of HOF's efforts are finally reaping major national rewards. "When you've got all these people there rockin' out who don't want you to get off the stage after an hour and 15 minutes, that's the best feeling in the world. I was looking out in the crowds and saw all kinds of different people -- metalheads, old rocker dudes, and younger skater kids. It's really cool that we're breaking through to all these people. And we've been playing really well, not too many flubs or anything. Joe's really locked in now and we're really tight, so it's going great."

Despite the fact that as the "new guy," Preston gets the unenviable task of handling the bulk of the driving, Kensel gushes that the former Melvins bassist really saved the day for High on Fire last July. Just weeks before the band was scheduled to head to Albini's Chicago studio to record Wings, then-bassist Rice abruptly announced he was quitting, leaving his bandmates in a last-minute bind.

"I mean, I guess me and Matt kinda saw it comin'," says Kensel. "George wasn't having fun on tour anymore, and he wasn't really having any creative input for this record, but he's such a good friend of ours that it's hard to confront someone who's been through it all with you. We were just hoping he would either come forward with some new bass lines or to tell us that he wasn't into it anymore, and that's what he did. So me and Matt were at work one day trying to figure out what the hell to do, Joe's name came up, we made some calls, and within a few days he was in. He's a great player, and his style, I think, is one reason the album is a lot faster and more raw, in your face."

Knowing that Kensel is a native East Coaster (he relocated to the Bay Area from Manhattan in 1996, just a year or so before he met Pike through mutual friends) who cut his teeth on such fast, raw NYC hardcore bands as Sick of It All and the Cro-Mags -- groups that tended to favor a more straightforward lyrical approach -- I have to ask him what he really thinks of Pike's sword-and-sorcery imagery, especially when the singer busts out lines like "Stolen ancient amulet/ Black the hexed sarcophagus/ Summoning the hound/ The bringer of impending doom" on Wings' "Cometh Down Hessian."

"I definitely give him shit sometimes," Kensel laughs. "I mean, half the lyrics were written on a fuckin' cocktail napkin!"

I can hear Pike chuckling in the background.

"He'll be like, 'Heyyyyy, whaddaya think about this?' and I'm like, 'Man, what the fuck does this mean?!' and we start crackin' up," Kensel continues. "But we've known each other long enough now where I can do that. I don't know if anyone else can! But you know what? It fits with the music, it's all got meaning for sure and he'll use his own language to explain it, and if that's what he's thinkin' and feelin' at the time, and if he's the one singing it, why not?"

And, he adds, he's always entertained by the various over-the-top metaphors the band spawns in the press that attempt to describe High on Fire's music.

"I love when there's stuff like, 'This is what Conan the Barbarian listened to when he sharpened his battle sword!' Shit like that I think is fuckin' hilarious. I guess it's a good way to explain a big, aggressive sound. Hell, if I wasn't in this band and I read something like that, I'd buy our album!"

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Michael Alan Goldberg

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