Old Metal, New Age 

Oakland's High on Fire fuels itself with medieval imagery and yoga.

The distinguished gentlemen of Oakland metal trio High on Fire certainly wear their influences on their sleeves -- Black Sabbath, Mötörhead, and Celtic Frost, to name a few. But the sleeves don't matter nearly as much as the muscles bulging inside them. Music this technically demanding and physically punishing takes dedication and innovation, so frontman Matt Pike and drummer Des Kensel have slowly transformed their physiques. Pike beefed up considerably just to keep up with his dizzying array of chord changes, while Kensel turned to a decidedly unmetal workout routine: yoga.

Not that he didn't need some prodding. "I had to kick my drummer's ass," Pike admits with a laugh.

Perhaps you can trace this yoga-and-ass-kicking effect across High on Fire's three albums. The Art of Self Defense, released in 2000 on the now-defunct Man's Ruin label, introduced fans to Pike's first excursion beyond the stoner rock doom of his deified prior band, Sleep. A sea change was immediately evident: This new sound contained less drone and, appropriately, more fire, still accompanied by plenty of distortion and low-end rumblings. Surrounded by Thieves followed in 2002, revealing the trio's progression into a leaner, badder machine. The tempos increased, and Kensel pushed his physical limits to chase them down with thundering percussion.

By this time, High on Fire had established itself as one of the most exciting rock bands in the Bay Area, drawing devoted fans across genres thanks to a string of notoriously loud, invariably packed shows. Nationally, the group garnered praise from Spin, Rolling Stone, and even The New Yorker. But these guys still haven't caught fire to the degree of contemporaries like Atlanta's Moby Dick-obsessed Mastodon; between tours, Pike earns his living digging ditches and working at the downtown Oakland bar Radio. "We're a slow-growing band," he reasons.

That growth is only accelerating; On the band's newly minted Blessed Black Wings, the High on Fire boys push themselves even further. But instead of simply settling for "faster" or "louder," the dynamics have intensified. Pike intersperses pretty arpeggios between his monstrously heavy riffs, while his gruff voice pushes too -- at times his vocals crunch like tires on a gravel road, while elsewhere he strains to actually "sing." Meanwhile, new bassist Joe Preston (ex-Melvins) doesn't change the melodies as much as he alters the tone -- whereas former bassman George Rice was known for blowing out the bottom end, Preston saves the band from getting bogged down in the muddied grime.

But while the goal of any respectable metal band, of course, is to be loud as hell, High on Fire also understands the importance of a good melody, coupling its sonic mayhem with riffs and melodies that stick in your head long after your ears have stopped ringing. Furthermore, in an age where bands have to hire therapists to unleash themselves (and their beleaguered fans) from sheer boredom, it's refreshing to see Pike exorcise a few demons without the ridiculous fanfare. With song titles like "Sons of Thunder" and "Cometh Down Hessian," it's easy to dismiss his lyrical fodder as trite and juvenile D&D fare, yet for all the fantasy imagery rampant throughout Blessed Black Wings, Pike says such medieval battle cries are metaphors for his own wars -- namely with substance abuse.

"'To Cross the Bridge' is about my alcoholism," he explains. "I was going through really weird times when I was wandering around homeless and on a drunk binge. I just felt like I had fallen. When I say, The warrior's chains are self-inflicted, well, that's me keeping myself down." So Pike recasts himself as a medieval warrior -- during High on Fire's brutal live shows, you can almost picture him splitting heads with a battle axe.

Speaking of battle axes, Blessed Black Wings was produced by Steve Albini of Big Black and Shellac fame. "He really got into the project -- I was surprised," Pike recalls. "Everyone told me he usually hits 'record' and does what the band wants him to, but he had a lot of input on what we were doing, which really helped a lot."

For example, Kensel's drums now have a bigger, more textured feel. "We wanted a little more of a live, up-front, in-your-face sound, instead of like we're playing in a canyon with a big low-end rumble," Pike explains. "Everything's real ambient on this recording." The result is immediate and satisfying: Opening track "Devilution" unloads with a violently crescendoing drum solo before launching into an assault of up-front fury, while "The Face of Oblivion" is a head-bobbing throwback to classic metal.

Pike gets far more specific about studio conditions than about his own spirituality, but his religious grapplings do figure into the High on Fire equation. Since Pike was a young boy growing up in Denver (he moved to San Jose when he was seventeen), he has had a deep interest in Christianity and the Bible, an influence he credits to his mother. Though he doesn't necessarily believe what he reads, what he reads fascinates him nonetheless.

"This is not agnostic," he says. "I am gnostic. It's about self-discovery. I'm not preaching anything at anyone. If you wanna listen to my lyrics, interpret them any way you want for all I care, but they do have underlying meanings." Consider Blessed's title track, in which Pike uses the theme of the tragic hero to convey personal pain: Long to live the path that saves my soul/Away adapted forced to live so low/Gone's the will to want to see the light /Somber visions cause the path I've strived.

It's obvious High on Fire -- what with the yoga, the inner demons, and the religious tension -- delves far deeper than your average fuck-shit-up metal band. "I have a lot of different beliefs, and a lot of them very macabre and dark," Pike says. "I kind of have a problem with humanity and the way we treat each other. I wish I could help, but all I can do is sing in anger about it."

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