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High Time

We're just a wandering band of comedians."

You might expect such a statement from the stooges in Barenaked Ladies or, at the very least, Ween. But coming from Matt Pike, singer/guitarist of Oakland's High on Fire, the confession sounds seriously hilarious. After all, the trio -- Pike, drummer Des Kensel and ex-Melvins bassist Joe Preston -- just released one of the most gut-splattering albums in metal history, Blessed Black Wings. A storm of blood-spitting riffs, brontosaur stomps and molten malevolence, the disc ranks up there with obvious inspirations such as Venom's Welcome to Hell and Saint Vitus's V. Pike's vocals, naturally, are as guttural as a garbage disposal, so clues to his songs' meanings have to be gleaned from titles like "Devilution" and "The Face of Oblivion." Not exactly punchline material -- even though the seeds of comedy were already sprouting back in the late 1980s. Pike, then a high school kid living in Golden, played a single show with his first group: a foursome with the seductively retarded moniker of Desire.

"Oh, God, it was terrible," Pike remembers with a laugh. "It was, like, half thrash-metal guys and half glam-rockers. I think I had a black Mohawk or something. We were all fucked up and stupid."

Back then, Pike was a self-admitted juvenile delinquent growing up in a broken home frequented by Hell's Angels and his metal-head classmates -- including James "Scooter" Wellensiek, who would go on to found the noted Denver outfits Pinhead Circus and Love Me Destroyer. "I jammed with Scooter and a couple other friends. That was the first time I really started dicking around and playing music with people," Pike notes. "We would come up with stupid shit and never go anywhere with it. We were corny as fuck."

Coinciding with the height of the punk/metal crossover of the late- '80s, Pike's teenage years were spent ingesting the caustic sounds of Slayer, Corrosion of Conformity and Black Flag. But thrash and hardcore weren't all he was addicted to. "I had a little drug habit to feed," he acknowledges, "and I got into trouble for stealing car stereos. I was just a crazy fucking kid. I went to juvenile hall and then military school, but instead of going back to my mom's house, I had to go live with my dad in California."

It was in San Jose that the guitarist, still in high school, finally made his mark -- albeit minor -- as a member of a punk band called Asbestos Death. The Bay Area scene at the time was flourishing with young acts like Green Day and Operation Ivy.

"There were so many good bands coming out of there," recalls Pike. "Neurosis. The Melvins had just moved down from Washington. There were shows all weekend long, every weekend. To move to a scene like that from Golden was pretty trippy."

Even trippier were the inspirations for Sleep, the group Asbestos Death had mutated into by 1990. Taking cues from Neurosis and the Melvins as well as Black Sabbath, Pike's new quartet mixed hardcore intensity with a glacially paced, dirge-like psychedelia. People tried to brand the band with the tag "doom metal," a catchphrase that covered Sleep's few true contemporaries, such as England's Cathedral. But the press soon concocted a more germane name for Sleep's stew of sludge and distortion: stoner metal.

"We were just going with the flow back then," Pike muses, "taking lots of acid and smoking lots of pot. The music just kind of happened that way. I guess it kind of had a shock value. There weren't a whole lot of people doing that kind of retro thing then. It kind of caught on after we had already started fucking with it."

With the explosion of more accessible stoner acts like Kyuss and Monster Magnet, Sleep assumed a cult notoriety. A 1994 tour with the legendary, lysergically damaged Hawkwind brought further attention, and Pike and crew came to a happy agreement with London Records soon after. But the major label wasn't laughing two years later, when Sleep finally handed in its contracted album: a single-song, hour-long drone opus called Dopesmoker. The company promptly shelved the record, which was widely bootlegged under the title Jerusalem before being released in its originally intended form in 2003. But the damage had already been done; Sleep drifted off somewhere toward the end of the millennium, never to be heard from again.

"It was time to move on," Pike explains. "I just wanted to start something fresh, a little more aggressive. I wanted to mess with different speeds and tempos and songwriting. And I started singing, so that was a whole new thing to learn. I put thought into it, but I didn't really know how it would all turn out."

High on Fire, though, managed to make every Sleep fan wake up and take notice. Backed by Kensel and original bassist George Rice, Pike unleashed The Art of Self Defense in 2000; it was a rampage of angst and unearthly heaviness that exhumed the rawest, sickest bits of Motrhead and Celtic Frost (whose "Usurper" was faithfully covered on the disc). Borne on an upsurge of interest in all things metal, 2002's Surrounded by Thieves was at once more tuneful and less forgiving. But it wasn't until Blessed Black Wings that High on Fire truly took flight; a churning, pummeling mass of darkness and abrasion, the record is a catalogue of evils both psychic and mythic. But, as far as Pike has obviously come as a songwriter and musician over the last five years, he attributes Wings' triumph to the contributions of two revered figures from the underground scene: Joe Preston and Steve Albini.

"I had known Joe as an acquaintance from when I used to go to Melvins shows," Pike says. "Then years later, he started coming to a few High on Fire shows, and we'd kind of hang out. Our old bassist decided to quit, and me and Des tried to think of someone who could learn the material quick enough to get us in the studio with Albini. Joe just came from out of nowhere and said, 'I'll do it.' He learned all the new material, and some of the old stuff, in five days.

"We went with Albini because we were just shooting for a different kind of sound," he continues, "and maybe reinvent ourselves and take a shot in the dark. Which we did, and I'm glad. The new record definitely has a different feel to it. I like the recording he's done with Neurosis and Shellac, and I wanted that more up-front and in-your-face sound."

But it isn't just the sonic textures that Pike tweaked on Wings. In great swoops and flutters, the disc displays a much wider arc of mood and atmosphere than High on Fire -- and indeed, most metal bands -- usually shoot for.

"The emotion of it, the intensity, goes up and down. There's a lot of depression in it. Most of the music I write is about personal depression, problems that I have with myself, the way I act with my bandmates and deal with touring. It's about us, you know?"

Lest you think High on Fire has gone emo, though, keep in mind that Pike -- once a fucked-up kid with a Mohawk and a crappy Denver band called Desire -- has never lost sight of his epic sense of humor. "I love it when we're writing songs and one of us comes up with a riff that totally sounds so over the top that it's smart-ass, almost ridiculous," he remarks. "It's like the riff is laughing at you."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller

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