High On Fire Dials Direct to God

Music Features
High On Fire Dials Direct to God
May 1, 2000, 15:14

It was stoner-rock night at Austin, Texas's Emo's during South by Southwest 2000. The room was crowded with dazed-looking long hairs, overly tattooed goons, and surprisingly, more than just a few women (one myth out the window). Billowing smoke drifted through the club. Onstage, Nebula's set drew to a furious close; ostensibly, they were the band everyone was there to see—and why not? They have a gong. Within five minutes of their finish, the room's occupancy had diminished by half. By the time the Oakland-based trio High on Fire took the stage at around 1 a.m., the room had nearly halved again. But as bassist George Rice, drummer Des Kensel and guitarist-singer Matt Pike launched into their set, it was obvious that High on Fire wasn't just playing great rock and roll. Not only did they rock harder than everyone else did—there was a distinct authority in Pike's titanic bellowing. As he repeatedly channeled gargantuan riffs through his green Matamp, something more than just eye-opening volume shook the room and everyone in it.

The difference between High on Fire's music and the music of similar bands is not an “apples vs. oranges” comparison—it's a bit more metaphysical, like apples vs. lightning. And that's because there are no like-minded bands. The fuel for High on Fire's inferno of sound comes from a higher place—two of them, in fact—which dovetail in very unique ways. “I guess you could say I'm an unorthodox Christian,” says Pike over the phone from his home, describing his personalized spirituality. “I've never had any title or denomination for my beliefs. [It's important] to see through all the crap about organized religion, because it's just a bunch of men arguing over stupid shit, and they don't see the whole picture. You gotta have time for your own head and heart.” Of course, time for such higher pursuits is at a minimum in the modern world, but Pike distances himself from that world in the same way he connects with his higher power. “I think [pot] is a direct telephone to God,” he says. “I really believe that.”

That won't come as news to anyone familiar with Pike's last band, the legendary Sleep. It was on that band's second record, Holy Mountain that it moved from the somewhat Melvins-leaning sound of their debut, Volume 1, to an evolved take on Sabbath riff-metal. The back cover photo of the band members smoking various pipes was the most obvious of several clues to their favorite hobby. Then came Jerusalem, a record that was to be the band's major label debut (London/Polygram), but which instead lead to Sleep's end. Comprised of one 52-minute song, Jerusalem couldn't have lent itself in any way to London/Polygram's marketing scheme—if the label had one at all—and after a few advances of the record slipped out, London/Polygram dropped the trio and decided not to release it. The fact that a few copies of the monolithic, hypnotic ur-metal it contained were passed around only added to Sleep's near-mythic status. After the band broke up, Jerusalem was finally released on an indie, (The Music Cartel in 1998. Again, weedian imagery was a major component of the record; the liner notes detailed the group's take on Biblical history to staggering effect. Every single thing about Jerusalem oozes heaviness. “We had a hard time making that record,” admits Pike quietly. “It was deep and painful and really spiritual for all of us, but there was a black cloud that we hit and we just needed to move on.” He pauses before adding, “I guess it was just God's will.”

It didn't take long for Pike to assemble High on Fire. Sleep's demise was a tumultuous experience but he knew that resting wasn't an option. “It's like, I'm not going to die. I'm going to defend myself. It's like any sort of martial arts,” he says, referencing his years of training. “It's just defense and strengthening yourself mentally and physically.” Accordingly, on their self-titled debut EP and recent full-length, The Art of Self-Defense (Man's Ruin), High on Fire wears Sleep's pronounced spiritual essence like battle armor. The imagery freely borrows from disciplines that Pike finds inspiring and relevant—including a modified Rastafarianism and the Knights of the Templar. And one common element is the combination of spiritual self-awareness with a readiness to

defend oneself. “There needs to be a natural and spiritual revolution on this earth,” offers Pike. “Technology is taking away people's space, it prevents them from having any connection with higher powers or spiritual beings.” Pike shies away from getting too specific in defining his religion—”it could deter people from their own spiritual growth”—but it bears strong resemblance to some theories about early Christianity that claim Christ was actually bringing psychedelic mushrooms into Jerusalem and using them to gain access to God.

High on Fire really is outsider metal. Not “outsider” as in, these guys might be retarded, but “outsider” as in loner, apart from others—as in this is rock not to bang your head to (though it works in that manner if so desired), but to make whatever sort of spiritual journey you might be able to make through music. (Do not let the previous statement prevent you from seeing High on Fire live: Your results may vary.) High on Fire's sound is as outward directed as Sleep's was inward; Pike's furious roar reflects the band's over arching essence. It's just one facet of the art of self-defense.

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