By Erin Sherbert
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The Bay Area boasts a metal history virtually unrivaled by any other region in the U.S. You know the names: Exodus, Death Angel, Testament, Possessed, and, of course, Metallica, just to scratch the surface. Almost without fail, each of these influential acts come with a hardscrabble backstory. (Who can forget Metallica's "loser's lunch" — bologna on hand, because there was no dough for bread in those early days?)
Commercially speaking, local metal has seen its boom and bust days as well — the '80s were epic; the '90s, not so much. But Oakland's High on Fire is carrying on the storied legacy, almost single-handedly putting this locale back in the national spotlight and becoming one of the most venerated metal outfits in the country.
Singer-guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Des Kensel founded High on Fire back in 1998. They shaped a band known for visceral recordings, molten live shows, and truly heavy metal. And talk about hardscrabble. The pair has paid more dues than a loading dock of union workers. They've relentlessly toured tiny shitholes for no money, made personal sacrifices galore, and suffered bodily destruction, some of it accidental (various fractured bones, throat problems) and some of it, uh, voluntary (the band's fondness for a bit of the drink and the drug is legendary and well documented). If you count Pike's previous stint as guitarist in grinding '90s drone-metal band Sleep, he's been through more than 15 years of this stuff. Which makes High on Fire's ascension to the top of the metal heap — one that started with 2005's Blessed Black Wings, and is solidified with its staggering new Death Is This Communion — that much sweeter.
Spin, Kerrang!, and leading metal mag Decibel have weighed in with glowing reviews and features on Death is This Communion. Album sales are the best they've ever been. The band appeals to both rock-critic eggheads and Camaro-driving, dope-smoking metalhead lifers alike, and bigger venues with larger crowds are the norm on their current headlining tour.
The time and commitment Pike has put into his playing has reaped benefits beyond the quality of the band's recordings — he was recently named one of Rolling Stone's "new guitar gods," though it's a tag he plays down with an embarrassed chuckle when the topic is raised. "Well, it's nice to be appreciated," he says.
"He knows he's good, he's no fuckin' dummy," laughs Down/Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Pepper Keenan, who's known Pike since his early Sleep days. "When I first met him he was like, 'All I know is I like to pummel, I just gotta pummel,' and that echoed in my brain. He's invented his own sound, which is rare in this day and age — you can count those people on one hand. And in his own way he's made heavy music evolve for sure. There's a ton of bands chasin' his ass around, but they'll never catch him."
Speaking from a tour stop in Tennessee, the personable Pike says, "Blessed Black Wings got us into everybody's brain, you know? The first two albums [2000's The Art of Self-Defense and 2002's Surrounded by Thieves] it was real cultish, but the last one and this one have definitely reached a new crowd. It seems like everything's happening really fast now. Things are startin' to go our way ... finally."
A few nights later, High on Fire is onstage at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia. Rounded out by bassist Jeff Matz, the band spends 75 minutes throttling a receptive crowd with all the reasons they're such a powerful force in metal. Perpetually shirtless, sweaty, and supremely charismatic, Pike yanks gargantuan riffs and masterful, screaming solos out of his nine-string guitar as he growls and bellows his cryptic lyrics of demons and warriors. His myriad tattoos — wolves, griffins, skulls, crosses — are practically animated as he stalks the stage. Kensel and Matz match his intensity and brutal thunder note for note, groove for groove, and the crowd feeds off it, with fists and devil horns punching the air as a bloodthirsty circle pit opens up in the middle of the floor during new songs like "Rumors of War" and older favorites like "Baghdad."
After witnessing this performance, it's easy to see why High on Fire is so popular, but the band's pals and peers are happy to chime in about its ever-increasing appeal.
"It's their general attitude of not following current trends and sticking with more of the classic influences," says Coliseum's Ryan Patterson, who currently shares a record label (Relapse) and a tour with High on Fire. "I see them as being the Venom or Bathory or Motörhead of this era, and I respect that they can progress and be successful without having to tone it down or cheese it out."
"They're just a bunch of fuckin' heshers, man," laughs drummer Brann Dailor of Mastodon, High on Fire's "brother band" after a number of joint tours. "They're completely real; what you see is what you get. That's why we instantly hit it off and became close friends within a few days. We're all total metal nerds, into the right kind of metal: Maiden and Celtic Frost and Mercyful Fate and Slayer and Motörhead. And, you know, the same metal aesthetic — yetis and bigfoots and Vikings and shit like that."