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It started off casually, but High on Fire would go on to become more popular than Sleep. "I wanted to do something even heavier than that," Pike said in 2001. "That's what was in my mind. I wanted to be heavier, just nonstop getting heavier."
By the mid-to-late-'90s, a generation of heshers raised on '70s riff-rock and '80s metal had created a thriving underground music scene. Bands played a thick, distorted sound that eschewed the overproduced nü-metal that glistened on the nation's alt-rock radio stations.
San Francisco record label Man's Ruin was at the epicenter of that scene, with a roster that included Fu Manchu, Kyuss, Acid King, Drunk Horse, Lost Goat, the Men of Porn, the Melvins, and the Desert Sessions series started by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. After catching a whiff of High on Fire's three-song demo, owner Frank Kozik signed the band to release its debut, The Art of Self-Defense.
They seemed to fit in, initially. With Pike's background in Sleep, High on Fire naturally drew comparisons to his old band. But his increasing technical prowess and Kensel's bashing drumming style, which relied on toms rather than double bass, gave High on Fire a substantially beefier sound. Whereas many bands start off playing fast, heavy music and mellow with age, High on Fire did precisely the opposite.
Almost immediately, adulation for The Art of Self-Defense flowed in from major publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, GQ, Alternative Press, Magnet, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice. The praise was somewhat surprising, given the album's brutally dirty sound. Produced by Billy Anderson whose credits include dozens of local punk and metal bands Self-Defense combined droning riffage and psychedelic solos for six lengthy jams.
Contributing to the heaviness were Pike's vocals, perhaps the roughest in the genre. Far from the Cookie Monster bark prevalent in today's metal, Pike's voice emanated from a calloused, cigarette-burned, Jack-Daniels-soaked throat gruffer than Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister.
The songs were also filled with Pike's medieval-battle and religious imagery, an aspect that coupled with the Tolkien-inspired album artwork would help sculpt the High on Fire aura.
Pike's lyrics, though, tended to be dismissed as typical D&D fodder. Sample from "Baghdad": Melding of the Riffchild/ From wall to the Universe/ Weed priest stoned arrival. Pike described his words as "weird religious theology, Illuminati, Knights of the Templar kinda theme." Sometimes barely intelligible, the lyrics came to reveal more clearly the singer's struggle with alcoholism and self-destructive behavior, and his relationship to his religion, which he once described as an "unorthodox version of Christianity."
But not long after Self-Defense was released, Man's Ruin folded. Philadelphia label Relapse, home to extreme bands such as Dying Fetus and Pig Destroyer, signed High on Fire for its second album, Surrounded by Thieves, which was released in May 2002.
In contrast to its debut, Surrounded by Thieves showed the band getting tighter, heavier, and faster the result of constant touring. Though still working with Anderson, the band was moving away from the muddied sound he was known for. Most of the songs clocked in at less than five minutes; some were as short as three. "I wanted to pick up the pace a little bit, be a little less droney, and a little more active or, how do you say, busy," Pike said after the album's release. "I wanted to kick my drummer's ass a little."
At shows, High on Fire especially Pike came alive with a ferociousness that was stunning. Pike would play shirtless, showing off his religious-imagery tattoos. And by Surrounded, he and Kensel had become noticeably buffer, too. Pike would joke about Kensel's Tae Bo workout, but the band was indeed toning up a necessity given the increasing physical intensity of their playing. Some female fans even started stalking Pike and his girlfriend.
The hard work was paying off. High on Fire played a handful of dates opening for Motörhead. At one point, the band was offered a slot on Ozzfest's second stage, but turned it down because of the tour's pay-to-play policy. "I ain't paying no one $75,000 to play," Pike said. "Fuck that."
Despite a growing audience, bassist George Rice tired of the endless days on the road under less-than-ideal conditions. "Things were rough, coming home with no money," Kensel remembered. "He just couldn't do it anymore."
In the summer of 2004, High on Fire enlisted former Melvins bassist Joe Preston to play on its third album, Blessed Black Wings. Kensel and Pike spent more time on arrangements and getting out of a routine Pike said they had fallen into. The album exploded with a fury even more intense and upfront than past releases. The opener, "Devilution," launched with a whipping drum solo and creepy, lightning-fast riffs.
The most noticeable change was the album's cleaner sound, thanks to engineer Steve Albini, who'd worked with Nirvana and Neurosis, among countless others. "We wanted a little more of a live, upfront, in-your-face sound, instead of like we're playing in a canyon with a big low-end rumble," Pike said in 2005.
Blessed addressed Pike's demons more explicitly than past releases had: Chained and shackled, earthen toil/Made to serve the whips and lashes/Quench your thirst and drink this bottle/The warrior's chains are self-inflicted, he sings in "To Cross the Bridge." "I was going through really weird times when I was wandering around homeless and on a drunk binge," Pike said that year. "I just felt like I had fallen, and when I say the warrior's chains are self-inflicted, well, that's me keeping myself down."
Still, the band was gaining an increasingly loyal fan base and some worldwide recognition. They were invited to play the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival and the inaugural Sounds of the Underground tour, which featured metal superacts Opeth and Lamb of God. But High on Fire's old-school, stripped-down style made them an anomaly sometimes even an unwelcome one. Once, in Illinois, the crowd booed them.
Then came a string of bad luck. Pike fractured his wrist while wrestling (drunk) one night with one of the Mastodon guys. Preston departed shortly thereafter, not so unexpectedly. Kensel discovered bone spurs growing into his spinal cord that required surgery. As he recuperated, the band had to turn down an offer to tour with their idols in Slayer.
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