High On Fire - Biography
In the past few decades, heavy metal has been through all sorts of Middle Earth rumblings, volcanic upheavals, and a completely unexpected series of pan-cultural, trans-genre conflagrations that would leave Odin scratching his beard in confusion. When some of biggest names in metal, e.g., Stephen O’Malley of iconic Sunn O))), owe more to minimalist composers like Tony Conrad than the hair-farming icons of yore, then there’s something weird cooking in the cauldron. The 1990s band Sleep were a prime example, eschewing head-banging crunch for mind-bending drones. Sleep lived up to their moniker, floating in languid, quicksilver ripples of extreme duration, extruding sound like iced molasses and moving through implacable, undulating figures at a plate-tectonically challenged pace. When Sleep disbanded in 1998, and guitarist Matt Pike announced a new group, High on Fire, both detractors and aficionados expected more (much more) of the same. Instead, they got a surprise, something that’s often in short supply in the medicine cabinet of thrash. High on Fire managed to stake out a middle ground that didn’t feel anything like a compromise; instead, Pike, bassist George Rice and drummer Des Kensel utilized some impressive chops towards an enviable result. High on Fire displayed a vast knowledge of and intuitive knack for the form, and managed to triangulate some untrammeled ground between the past and the future, the languid and the furious, the avant garde and plain ol’ bruising, high-decibel brutality. Pike’s ensemble didn’t ride the old-school lightning; nor did it hop aboard the TCH-greased glacier. High on Fire are just a hard-assed power trio that don’t conflate their chops or lose their focus. There are no cartoonish Cookie Monster affectations; no red robes or hooded cowls or scurrying Jawas; no Norwegian-versus-Swede imbroglios. Shoot, if Greg Ginn had demonstrated as much focus as Matt Pike, Black Flag might still be together — but not necessarily as good as High on Fire.
Sleep didn’t go gently into that black metal night; they raged against lawsuits, legal wrangling and corporate machinations. When all was said and done, Pike was ready to walk away, write some songs, rock some riffs, and cut the BS. The High on Fire debut, The Art of Self Defense (2000 Man’s Ruin), staked out some precious high ground on razor-sharp peaks of rock and vaporous clouds of stoner-core bliss. There’s no escaping the deliberate lack of clichéd gloss, technical varnish or fey, aren’t-we-technically-facile decoupage. Tracks like “Baghdad,” “10,000 Years” and “Last” never try too hard, and why should they? When High on Fire are on fire, the sound pours forth with primal simplicity and elemental urgency. The next efforts were even more strident and dauntless: Surrounded by Thieves (2002 Relapse) was lauded as a gargantuan album, and accompanied a collaboration with Atlanta’s Mastodon; Blessed Black Wing (2005 Relapse) was produced by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, and his no-frills, in-your-face sense of heightened aural naturalism made High on Fire more fearsome than ever. Death Is This Communion (2007 Relapse) was produced by Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Nirvana), and showcased Pike’s increasingly sophisticated arrangements and informed songsmithing. Snakes for the Divine (2010 Relapse) wallows in relentless aural monstrosities like “Frost Hammer” and “Bastard Samurai.” Those tracks share the vigorously propulsive rhythms that are crucial to the High on Fire sound. Under scrutiny, it’s Pike’s guitar that’s setting the pace for the bass and drums, not vice versa, and although this is metal through and through, he’s got a rhythmic sensitivity that manages to groove. You’re not supposed to say “sensitive” or “groove” within a thousand light years of metal, but there you go. Matt Pike is a groovy, kick-ass beast, with righteously attuned antennae that know how to hone in on an infectious beat. Let the syncopated banging of heads begin.