Matt Pike should be crowned the King Hesher of Earth. The shirtless, stoned(formerly), drunk(formerly), and long-haired guitarist/singer of High On Fire is a force of nature. First off the guy is a monster on the guitar. Sure there’s dudes that shred in metal bands, but Pike has an ease of playing that feels almost savant-like. He’s one of these guys that just connects to the guitar on some psychic level. To play and riff like he does with that kind of speed and dexterity, all the while singing about demons, wars, bloodshed, and whatever else he comes up in that THC-scorched brain of his is quite impressive. While his solos sound very thought out and planned, there’s a sense that he could just go off the rails at any minute. There’s that vibe of “Shit, let me just set my head on fire then play this solo and lets see what happens.”
I mean, he’s no stranger to the game.
Before he started High On Fire he was the guitarist in the band that pretty much defines stoner/doom rock as we know it. Sleep was the quintessential doom metal band, dark and slowly trudging through riffs steeped in Sabbath and hashish. C’mon, any band that pushes to put out the hour-long song/album called Dopesmoker, a concept album about the Weedian people has got to have some serious brass balls(or have brains completely steeped in some top shelf, high grade shit.) Pike comes across as a guy who didn’t really give a shit about what the suits at the label thought. So instead of messing with their vision the band breaks up and Pike starts over with drummer Des Kensel and bassist George Rice as High On Fire. High On Fire was like Sleep, but sped up. They were just as much influenced by Slayer as they were Sabbath. They’ve changed up bass players over the years, but Pike and Kensel have remained.
High On Fire have put out some seriously blistering records since the very beginning. For me, though, it all began with 2002s Surrounded By Thieves, their first record for Relapse Records. I’d listened to Pike and company before, but nothing really clicked(it was a weird time, I was only listening to Blonde Redhead and Thelonious Monk that week.) A pal hooked me up with Snakes For The Divine but nothing came of it. Then back in 2013 I read an article about Dopesmoker and thought “Hey, I need to look into this craziness”, so I bought a peculiarly colored(Indica) double vinyl from Southern Lord and proceeded to see the light(without the use of any narcotics.) My local record store had had a reissue copy of High On Fire’s Surrounded By Thieves in stock for some time. I relieved them of it and have never looked back.
I think there’s better High On Fire albums, for sure, but there’s something about Thieves that gets me coming back for repeated listens. Maybe the simplicity of it. It’s still a relatively sludgy affair(when you compare it to something like Blessed Black Wings or De Vermis Mysteriis), but it sounds like a band finding their footing. Their debut, The Art Of Self Defense, still sounded like a band looking for their sound. Still dealing with “Sleep” paralysis, they hadn’t found that HOF groove. Surrounded By Thieves is that spot where they were definitely past Sleep’s shadow and had found a new thing.
“Eyes and Teeth” slowly swells like air pushing through your ears before exploding in a sea of crushing riffs and precision attack drumming. Matt Pike’s vocals are a mix of singing and war tomes. You feel like there’s a song there, but you also feel like Pike is preaching a sermon of doom and damnation at the same time. As good as Pike is, though, Des Kensel is just as important as the man himself. Kensel is one of the best metal drummers working today. He takes the throne from former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo as far as I’m concerned. The guy is a drumming beast. “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered” proves Kensel’s ability to get the ball rolling with tribal beatings opening the song before a double kick drum and Matt Pike’s chugging riffage break through the mix to pummel you to a bloody pulp. “Speedwolf” sounds like a throwback to early 80s British metal before that all important meaty Pike guitar sound breaks the glass and it’s like Venom were swallowed by Electric Wizard. “The Yeti” is sort of the centerpiece track, with a running time at just over 7 minutes. Matt Pike sounds a bit like Lemmy as he sings about the mythical snow creature as the music trudges along what feels like an ominous snow path somewhere in the Himalayas. “Thraft of Caanan” has a bit of the Dopesmoker vibe, but with a little more groove thrown in. There’s even more of a singing thing happening as opposed to the growling here. The album closes out with the one-two punch of title track “Surrounded By Thieves” and the scorched earth “Razor Hoof”. There’s really no time to stop and breathe. You’re running for your life as soon as the needle is dropped.
Another thing that I love about High On Fire in general is their commitment to the vibe. When you look at a High On Fire album cover you’re seeing what’s buried within the grooves of that vinyl. If you see some cat with glowing red eyes carrying a battle axe and wearing a helmet with horns under fire-glow skies and a looming army behind him you know what you’re gonna be treated to sound-wise. This isn’t Molly Hatchet’s Flirtin’ With Disaster. You know, the one with the album cover with the muscle bound Scandinavian carrying a bloodied axe and some kind of serpent on the ground next to him. You expect it to be some heavy shit, but it’s really just southern rock. And half ass southern rock at that. Or that Grim Reaper album See You In Hell. All death and doom on that album cover, but surprise, inside is just some really lousy metal. No, High On Fire are as advertised. All doom, darkness, blood spilling, and as metal as they come.
High On Fire are on another level altogether when it comes to metal music. As heavy as Surrounded By Thieves, as well as their other records are, the heaviness seems to transcend onto some other plain. It almost becomes meditative. I’ve found that to be true of a lot of metal records as of late, both old and new. I mean, I don’t listen to Slayer because I dig lyrics about serial killers and eternal damnation(though all of that is tempting.) No, their records are a swirl of fury and speed that once you dig in it’s like you’ve entered the eye of a hurricane. The energy is addictive, for sure. But what’s even more addictive is melting into the background of the fury. Matt Pike and High On Fire make a similar kind of transcendental fury. I don’t know if it’s the mid-range their sound sits in or what, but I can get lost in records like Thieves, Blessed Black Wings, Death Is The Communion, and De Vermis Mysteriis. Not in a scary, serial killer kind of way, but the way I get lost in Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and other heavy synth records. I could just be weird(I know I am, in fact), but I find something calming in the heavy riffage and fantastical imagery that High On Fire offer up.
Surrounded By Thieves is a good place to start the HoF journey, if you’re looking for an in.