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Photograph by K. Scanlon

Smoke on the Water: High on Fire won the High Times Doobie Award in 2002 for Best Stoner Rock Album.

Natural High

Two bongs up for Bay Area stoner metal heroes High on Fire

By Erik Fong

IT ALL started so innocently for High on Fire frontman Matt Pike. As a child, he watched his grandfather play guitar and soon picked up the instrument himself. But while under the supervision of a couple of hip baby-sitters, Van Halen I showed him a new road, Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality widened his eyes and AC/DC's Back in Black sealed his fate.

"There were all these albums that I'd hear as a child that I really didn't understand, but I liked them," explains Pike. "Then once I started getting stoned, it all started making sense."

It's fitting that Pike—who took his first hit at the age of 10—now leads the band that won the prestigious High Times Doobie Award in 2002 for "Best Stoner Rock Album" for Surrounded by Thieves. Capitalizing on its ascent into heavy metal notoriety, High on Fire comes to the Blank Club on May 21 in support of its latest album, Blessed Black Wings.

High on Fire recorded the follow-up to Surrounded by Thieves with producer Steve Albini, whose résumé includes Nirvana's In Utero and the Pixies' Surfer Rosa. "The way he records is amazing," says Pike. "He still cuts tape—it's all analog. I think he captured a really good sound because everything was done the old-fashioned way."

Albini's analog ways paid off, increasing the low-range depth in drummer Des Kensel's tribal, tom-heavy style, preserving the thickness of Pike's acoustic embellishments and inflating an already monstrous guitar tone to a level comparable to early Sepultura on steroids. The power-chord chugging that formed most of Surrounded by Thieves has evolved into faster and more complex melodic lines, a byproduct of both early thrash metal (think Ride the Lightning-era Metallica) and years of jazz improvisation, which Pike studied in college. The collective force practically bleeds from the speakers, with each tom blast a solid jab and every downbeat the equivalent of a Mike Tyson uppercut.

Though Pike's guitar lines come with a heavy influence of John Coltrane, his growls come more from Lemmy. With an artfully abrasive delivery throughout Blessed Black Wings, Pike screams of Babylon, war, violence, wicked temptation and other nerdy D&D-esque fantasies, with just the right chip on his shoulder and even a subtle hint of melody.

High on Fire's musical maturity can also partially be attributed to its latest acquisition: bassist Joe Preston, whose battle scars from 11 years of touring with groups like sludge-metal experts the Melvins have helped Pike and Kensel see their future.

"He rocks," says Pike of Preston. "He's a veteran, so he learns things real fast. I think we're touring him to death. But he's a little older than me, so sometimes I'll ask him, 'Hey Joe, how do you handle this?' And he'll have some advice."

Judging by the band's exponential growth rate, Pike and Kensel will be looking to Preston for much more advice throughout the summer. Following its West Coast tour, High on Fire will spend some time in Japan before heading to France for the Fury Fest, which features 100 acts, including Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. From there, High on Fire will come back to the states for the Sounds of the Underground summer festival tour.

Pike now understands why it took consumption of "the dope" to see the genius behind the greatest rock albums of all-time: It took "the dope" for his forefathers to conceive them. And naturally, stoner see, stoner do.

"I don't smoke nearly as much pot as I used to," laughs Pike, "but when I'm writing, it definitely comes in handy to step outside yourself or get into a weird, hypnotized thing." Time will tell if High on Fire's Blessed Black Wings will seal someone else's fate and help launch the next generation of metal.

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From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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