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Doomed Saviors

Beneath All the Wicked Licks and Bleak Prophecy, the Heart of Death Metal’s High on Fire Beats for Everydude

By Tony Ware | Posted 2/9/2005

High on Fire plays the Ottobar Feb. 14 with Planes Mistaken for Stars and Kylesa.

Matt Pike considers himself an average guy; his favorite pastimes are “drinking beer, playing video games, having sex, just like any other dude.” Pike also plays guitar and sings in a badass metal band, High on Fire, the ferociously muddied Bay Area doom-metal trio that Pike shares with drummer Des Kensel and bassist Joe Preston. It’s a common enough story: When the endorphin rush of sporting and porking wears off, pick up an instrument. The difference is that High on Fire is no average metal band, and the group’s new album—its third, Blessed Black Wings—solidifies its reputation as a juggernaut of flaying licks.

And yet Pike insists that beneath Blessed’s imagery, drawn from H.P. Lovecraft short stories, medieval lore, and the like, beats the struggling heart of the everydude. “Blessed Black Wings, it’s like the angel and devil on everyone’s shoulder,” Pike says of the album’s lyrics. “It’s the addictions you have, the times you slip and fuck up. It’s human nature, the duality of your heart. Say you’re depressed—you go on a drinking binge. It didn’t solve your problems to be self-medicated, but it keeps you numb. Both sides co-exist in home life, and my imagery comes from everyday life, even though it’s masked in some way to seem like fantasy or sci-fi.”

Pike has known his own frustration to draw upon. Prior to High on Fire, he was in the celebrated stoner-rock trio Sleep. Signed to London Records in the mid-’90s, Sleep produced a conceptually and commercially challenging album, the single hourlong track Jerusalem, that got caught in a half-decade of turnaround (eventually officially released under the name Dopesmoker by Tee Pee Records in 2003). Sleep disbanded in 1998, and out of the smoke emerged High on Fire.

Almost immediately High on Fire left stoner throb behind for doom prophecy. Drawing from Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Venom, and Slayer, High on Fire took detuned plod and increased the ferocity, and the sheer torque of the new band’s crescendo cascades sloughed off Sleep’s lumber. More significant in terms of Blessed Black Wings, however, is not the evolution of Sleep to High on Fire but the changes within High on Fire itself. Originally Pike, Kensel, and bassist George Rice, High on Fire now includes veteran boomstick player Joe Preston, formerly of the Melvins, Earth, and Thrones.

“I’m looking forward to what [Preston] brings to the writing process,” Pike says. “I believe me and Des wrote [Blessed] dynamically. We lay the foundation with a riff and drumbeat. That’s the skeleton. After that there’s detail. It’s like being a painter: Often you just have a canvas and you start painting. We’re like that. The details aren’t the important part—the important part is that you have a skeleton, because then you can put on the skin, armor, ax and go to battle.”

You can’t get much more dude than that. HoF’s music presses forward without abating until it has a steely blade to the jugular. The trio’s increasing virtuosity, however, transcends the common. “Devilution” fades in on a flurry of ramping percussion. Melodic bellows are walloped by overdriven momentum in “Brother in the Wind.” Lithe passages of clean, shimmering tones offset dissonant crunch in “To Cross the Bridge” and “Sons of Thunder.” Throughout Blessed you feel the salty sting of Pike’s throaty bray and oppressive garrote of riffs. Drumbeats sound like mortar shells, and the low end grunts unremittingly.

Much of this tightly focused newfound sound was assisted by engineer Steve Albini, who helped the trio siphon off some of its sludge while losing none of its fury. Solos pluck more manically throughout, and the drums no longer sound as if they were recorded in a padded cell. The final result features more harmony, hyperbole, and heft—greater decibels and clarity—than any of High on Fire’s output to date.

At the end of the recording day, though, even the ordinary guys in the extraordinary High on Fire have to hit the road. And first and foremost that’s what keeps Pike going. “I like all that stuff I mentioned,” Pike concludes, recalling his average dude-isms of vids, beer, and sex. “But playing in front of people, just getting an immediate response, will always be my ultimate thrill.”

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