Any discussion as to the true genesis of the stoner sound is bound to devolve into an argument that probably resolves itself only after all parties involved in said argument begrudgingly agree that “Eh, well, it all kind of started with Black Sabbath.” Which is a total cop-out! And in that way, stoner is no different than any number of (sub)genres who similarly trace that tired & well-worn lineage but, for me, modern stoner rock and metal has a fairly well-defined starting point.
In last month’s Artist of the Month column (featuring Clutch!) I bemoaned the lack of compelling rock & roll music in the mid-to-late 90’s, and while I completely stand by what I said—particularly because what I said was meant to pertain to the mainstream—I’m going to contradict myself here because the truth is that that era saw the rise of a small handful of bands who were steadfastly laying the groundwork for the music that I adore today. Bands like Kyuss were doing their thing around that time, and I suppose one could lump the Melvins—who released the excellent Stoner Witch in 1994—into that category, but no band typifies the primordial mystique of the modern stoner genesis quite like Sleep. But this isn’t an article about Sleep, this is an article about the band that followed in Sleep’s wake and brought stoner metal out of the basement, to its proper place in the larger world of contemporary American metal—the almighty High on Fire!
High on Fire was formed in 1998 by shirt-hater and hesher extraordinaire Matt Pike who, after the initial demise of Sleep, founded the band with drummer Des Kensel. Rounded out by bassist George Rice—who would be replaced by ex-Melvin Joe Preston in 2002—the band released their stoner metal statement of purpose, The Art of Self Defense, in 2000. No doubt Pike’s time in Sleep gave High on Fire a bit of a boost in the early days, as evidenced by the band being picked up by Relapse Records for their sophomore album Surrounded by Thieves.
As foundational efforts, these first two albums established High on Fire as a force to be reckoned with in the underground metal scene, but it was their Steve Albini-produced 3rd album entitled Blessed Black Wings which saw them truly stake their claim amongst the genre’s elite. What their first two albums lacked in dynamics, Blessed Black Wings made up for in spades. Take the title track, for instance, or “The Face of Oblivion”—with its lumbering central riff and extended breakdown section—and what you’ll likely notice is High on Fire imbuing their sound with a sense of spatiality which allowed Kensel and Pike’s maturation as songwriters to shine through.
Moreso than their 4 & 5-piece counterparts, 3-piece bands rely heavily on the synergy between members as there is little, if any, room for weakness in the lineup. This is particularly true for bands who play at extreme ends of the sonic spectrum—for example, a 3-piece band playing sparse, low volume compositions has no way of hiding a weak player. Similarly, but for very different reasons, a band like High on Fire requires unrelenting cohesion to inflate the massive and crushing soundscapes which they create. Pike’s role in all of this as it pertains to High on Fire—his undeniable command of the power of the almighty riff and his unmistakable chipped-tooth roar—is obvious, but I’d be remiss to not give Kensel his due as well. Kensel, put bluntly, is a perfect counterpart to Pike’s larger-than-life presence—a beast behind the kit who forms the backbone of the High on Fire sound with his thick, tribal, tom-heavy sound. And when you consider that he’s been Pike’s writing partner since the beginning, it becomes clear that he’s as vital a cog as any to the High on Fire machine.
Not long after the release of Blessed Black Wings, Preston left High on Fire, once again leaving Kensel & Pike in need of a bass player. Fortunately for them ex-Zeke bassist Jeff Matz came aboard—first temporarily, then permanently—and has proven to be the final piece of the High on Fire puzzle. Now fully formed as a band, High on Fire released Death is this Communion in 2007. Produced by noted “grunge” producer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.), Death is this Communion saw High on Fire further expanding on the diversity of their sound, adding touches like 12-string acoustic guitar flourishes and middle-Eastern tinged melodic passages to their broadening sonic arsenal. None of this is to suggest that High on Fire had begun to soften, as they made obvious on songs like the appropriately named opening track “Fury Whip”, the relentless “Turk”, and the tumultuous ripper of a lead single “Rumors of War”.
If any album in the High on Fire discography is to be considered the proverbial “red headed step child” most fans would probably agree that it would be 2010’s Snakes for the Divine. Not only did the album see High on Fire take a turn into more progressive territory on songs like the title track, “Bastard Samurai”, and “How Dark We Pray”, it did so under the notably polished production of Greg Fidelman who is also responsible for the sound of the last few Metallica albums. Make of that what you will but, production quirks aside, the album was far from a dud, though it remains noteworthy because of how it contrasts both with what the band had done prior and what they’ve done since on their most recent three albums starting with 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis.
Translated to “The Mysteries of the Worm”, this release found Pike fully embracing his inner lunatic by constructing an overarching concept involving the time-traveling adventures of Jesus’ twin brother, who apparently died at birth only to be reborn in the spirit realm, or something…
Perhaps as a response to the gloss of Snakes for the Divine, De Vermis Mysteriis delivers a decidedly crustier version of the High on Fire sound courtesy of producer/Converge frontman Kurt Ballou. I had a little trouble with the production—and still do actually—but the band clearly felt otherwise as they once again tapped Ballou to produce 2015’s Luminiferous, and album which was met with near universal acclaim. In a notable shift from past releases, Luminiferous saw Pike delve into personal territory on some of the album’s lyrics, particularly on “The Sunless Years”—which dealt with Pike’s battle with addiction—and “The Cave”, which Pike has stated is about the challenge of balancing a career such as his with the relationships of those he loves.
For me, Luminiferous was notable in that it felt like the perfect combination of all of the elements High on Fire had cultivated over the years. Pike’s vocal performance was in top form, and his guitar playing as righteous as ever as it combined the band’s penchant for apocalyptic bombast with the sprawling, moodier cuts they’d been experimenting with of late. Kensel and Matz, for their part, sound like they are at the top of their respective games as well—in particular Matz, who has improved measurably as evidenced by how his bass lines deftly maneuver in and around the pocket rather than simply reinforcing it.
When you consider that we’ve been blessed with an excellent new album from Sleep this year as well—entitled The Sciences and released on 4/20 via Third Man Records—it’s impossible to regard Matt Pike as anything less than one of metal’s true living legends. I won’t steal any thunder from Brent’s review of High on Fire’s latest album Electric Messiah, but suffice it to say that my time with the album has done nothing but reinforce my opinion that in High on Fire—and in combination with the undeniable talents of Kensel and Matz—Pike has found his highest and best purpose.
On behalf of all of us at Metal Nation, I tip my hat to the mighty High on Fire. Rock on brothers!