High on Fire is a metal band that was formed in 1998, sometime after the legendary stoner band Sleep disbanded. The group is based in Oakland, California. Former Sleep guitarist Matt Pike became the band’s vocalist. He was joined by drummer Des Kensel and bassist George Rice.
Initially, there was talk that High on Fire was merely Pike’s “rebound band.” The group quickly disproved that by churning out a steady stream of songs that metal freaks embraced.
In 2002, Rice left the band and was replaced by bassist Joe Preston. Then, when Preston left as well, Matz came in. The Pike-Kensel-Matz trio is the band’s current and, perhaps, most enduring line-up.
As Jay Chirinos wrote in the LA Music Blog, “The band is so in sync at times you have to be reminded that there are three individual humans driving this machine.” He also said that Pike “has long been at the forefront of groove-ridden, riff-laden metal with an emphasis on sludgy heaviness and mind-warping solos.”
For his part, Pike disclosed in a Rolling Stone interview that he and his bandmates, Kensel and Matz, didn’t want to be put in a box. “We’re really good at the aggressive, high-powered metal stuff, but at the end of the day, all three of us are beings that have a lot of feelings and emotional content,” he said.
So far, the band has released seven studio albums: The Art of Self Defense (2000), Surrounded by Thieves (2002), Blessed Black Wings (2005), Death Is This Communion (2007), Snakes for the Divine (2010), De Vermis Mysteriis (2012), and Luminiferous (2015).
The band has been cited for its consistency in serving up gloom-and-doom and riff-driven music that its fans can really sink their teeth into. Needless to say, picking favorites from their extensive repertoire is a considerable challenge.
25. “The Path” from Snakes for the Divine
At one minute and twenty seconds, this instrumental piece is truly a delightful anomaly in the band’s suite of in-your-face tunes.
Consistency is great but the occasional deviation spices things up. This tune could be played on loop to win over those who are have not quite decided if they can wrap their heads around heavy metal. It could even be every newbie metalhead’s default ringtone.
24. “Fireface” from The Art of Self Defense
The voice of this song is an American Indian warrior, who says, “To be rising chief I have traveled a hundred fold days/ Wandered dark wilderness ravens have gathered my ways/ Look in my eyes your demise is what is fueling my rage/ For I am the one whom by others is called Fire Face.”
The song clocks in at eight minutes and thirty-five seconds and burns its way into your consciousness. Who can forget a name like “Fire Face”?
23. “Serums of Liao” from De Vermis Mysteriis
This song is often cited for the drum work, which is one of Kensel’s best. He serves up six minutes of terrific thrashing. Of course, Pike’s vocals soar with verses like “Killers maze, the holy’s rage dreaded down under its size/ Spirits tread, the lives gone dead, a risk to expose my face, my demise.”
22. “Blood From Zion” from The Art of Self Defense
This song is another audio assault with a solid drum beat accompanied by the rumble of guitars and edgy vocals.
The song’s verses have a religious flavor: “Coming of Messiah/ Hand of the Almighty. Blood flows down from Zion.” The name Zion, of course, is used to refer to Jerusalem. One could call this tune “a profound metal meditation.”
21. “Bastard Samurai” from Snakes for the Divine
This song earns praise for its daring opening lines, which go, “Count my fingers ten/ Dressed to kill and think again/ Count my fingers nine/ Do the math, your sacrifice.”
Pundits have pointed out that these verses embody the essence of metal music. Its slow-yet-destructive main riff doesn’t hurt either. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino movie.
20. “Frost Hammer” from Snakes for the Divine
This song explodes with the primal pounding promised by its title. Ironically, it was written by Pike and Matz as a way of welcoming Kensel’s new baby into the world.
Well, any baby who hears this song may think they’re in a whole other planet entirely. The tune’s opening lines offer a gentle warning: “Dream being thrown down aloft between from the icy sky/ Careful what to seek for inside the frozen mind.”
19. “The Dark Side of the Compass” from Luminiferous
This song is all about the place where nobody wants to be. It effectively conveys the chaotic interior life of a person who suddenly finds himself in the wrong place or is simply lost.
One of its most haunting verses goes, “We can’t find the direction of now/ Compass and Earth are turned upside down.” It’s with lyrics like these that the band elevates metal music to high art. It’s the kind of sophisticated introspection that contrasts beautifully with their raw sound.
18. “The Face of Oblivion” from Blessed Black Wings
This song was insipired by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, “At the Mountains Of Madness,” which is about an expedition to the South Pole.
With lines like “Teller of the tale lives beneath the ice/ Shadow of the haunter creeps within our sight/ As we lay sleeping… Horror,” it doesn’t take much to figure out that the journey doesn’t end well. Ironically, we are still all to willing to get on this unrestrained audio ride.
17. “Madness of an Architect” from De Vermis Mysteriis
This song boasts of a dark, bass-dominated tone and unnerving sustained fractures.
It also has lines like “An alchemist finds frozen secret left behind the deeds/ A wrath upon the humans less beyond this point society,” that flesh out metal music’s pseudo-nihilistic insights.
16. “Razor Hoof” from Surrounded by Thieves
This song is all about rage, from the point of view of a creature in the woods battling a wolf that hasn’t eaten for weeks.
The song’s opening lines describe the hostile situation: “Razor hoof coming down/ Coming down, coming down/ Antlers sharp, sharp to kill/ Trampler unseen/ Fearless wolf, bring it on/ Bring it down, bring it down/ Weeks without/ Kills for blood.”
15. “Carcosa” from Luminiferous
The HBO mini-series True Detective debuted in 2014. The series featured two fictional Louisiana State Police homicide detectives who find themselves right smack in the middle of a murder mystery spanning decades.
One of the symbolic elements in the show is the fictional city of Carcosa, which was first mentioned in Ambrose Bierce’s 1886 short story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa. The city wad further highlighted in Robert W. Chambers’ book of horror short stories published in 1895 called The King in Yellow.
In fact, True Detective‘s villain was referred to as “The Yellow King.” It’s been said that Pike was enamored of these references. Well, this song certainly reinforces that notion.
14. “Rumors of War” from Death Is This Communion
This song is a commentary on the corruption that is supposedly infecting the government. Others have tagged it as a tune tackling conspiracy theories on what’s wrong with the world.
In an interview with Songfacts, Pike explained what made him write it. “The Bush administration was going on and the war was starting. And I reflected it off of the Bush administration because that’s where I got the idea,” he stated.
True to its title, the song has combative lines such as “Sacrificing sons and daughters, rolls the war machine/ The tyrant fills his destiny.”
13. “Master of Fists” from The Art of Self-Defense
Clocking in at an epic 10 minutes and three seconds, this song is classified as a slow burner that channels the pent-up rage of a man who’s looking for a fight.
The song could serve as a musical martial arts manual — what with fast and furious verses like “Streamline form, flying kicks/ Warriors fall from powered hits/ Mesmerized speed and fury/ Numchuckas crush skulls with their flurry.” You half expect a kung-fu master to materialize from out of nowhere when you hear this tune.
12. “Devilution” from Blessed Black Wings
Praised for its well-time digressions, this song distinguishes itself from the band’s other tunes because it’s relatively short.
It clocks in at just four minutes and forty-six seconds. It’s a sudden loud burst rather than a series of explosions. It’s a richly textured and aggressive audio treat with lines like War torn, plague born, live in ancient wrath/ Executioner/ Shape shift, lives sift, pain in the child’s eyes/ Last rite spoken.” It’s like beat poetry set to metal.
11. “The Yeti” from Surrounded by Thieves
One of the most popular figures in civilization is the Abominable Snowman. This song pays tribute to that timeless creature of mystery with lines like “Abominable nomad/ The ancient monks know his clan/ The time of yeti will rise/ Because his ways have been wise.”
It’s songs like this one that make people realize that the band is an enthusiastic chronicler of myths — both ancient and more recent creations of humankind’s collective imagination.
10. “Slave the Hive” from Luminiferous
This song opens in trademark fashion, with a fast and furious tempo accompanying frantic lines like “Reading your thoughts, Just a bird in a cage, Just a rat in a maze/ Spiritual death, just a satanic catch, just a new god of lent/ Dimensional screen, just a gospel to squeeze, just attention to seize.”
In a feature on music site Pitchfork, Grayson Haver Currin noted, “This one gets really interesting in the middle, when Pike steps out for a solo that disrupts time and dislodges any logical direction.”
9. “Ethereal” from Death Is This Communion
Despite the metal sensibility, there’s something about this song that is delicate. Perhaps, it’s verses like “The skill and mind of magic/ Holding the mystic doors/ Like moths to ancient light/ Follow ascend in flight/ Fall through the ether lakes” that give that impression.
Take out the melody from this song and it could be a poem wrought from the Romantic Era, where they glorified the past and were attuned to nature.
8. “De Vermis Mysteriis” from De Vermis Mysteriis
The title track (translated as “The Mysteries of the Worm”) of what is often tagged as the group’s concept album is an homage to a fictional book of spells courtesy of Psycho author Robert Bloch.
Pike pointed out that it was later incorporated into H.P. Lovecraft’s renowned Cthulu Mythos, which is a universe inhabited by otherworldly monsters.
The song’s verses (“De Vermis Mysteriis, awkward and curious, anoesis has opened its face/ Kathulos, conjurer, tests of pain, Hasturers, pupils of black show their faith“) definitely reflect this.
7. “Death Is This Communion” from Death Is This Communion
This song channels a brooding, tortured soul with its hook-savvy accessibility. This title track is a departure from the band’s trademark ferocious audio antics but, nevertheless, it fits into their body of work.
It showcases the maturity of their sound, proving that they can make a huge impact even when they’re not in a manic mode. The lyrics of this song also tell a very compelling story with lines like “Under storm-filled skies/ Behemoth of the sea awakes, arise/ Tremble at the horror in which it writhes/ Once they behold and unearth the titans might/ Faithful servants pay its ghastly price/ Slithering, blasphemous, curse upon all life.”
6. “The Lethal Chamber” from Luminiferous
In a review for Metal Injection, Jeremy Ulrey said that this song is ” nine minutes of teeth rattling sludge that seethes along at a hardcore menace with the languid pace of a progressive doom workout.”
For the record, the song clocks in at eight minutes and forty-nine seconds. It’s a testament to the group’s stamina.
5. “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered” from Surrounded By Thieves
If you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of an almost-too-crazy onslaught of guitar, bass, and drums, this should be your go-to tune. The group does not hold anything back with this one. Listening to it is like putting your ears inside a blender of metal magnificence.
It’s high-grade noise that’s pure music to what’s left of metalheads’ ears.
4. “Baghdad” from The Art of Self-Defense
As the first track from the band’s first album, this tune is a violent audio introduction that’s hard to ignore — and that’s meant as a compliment.
This song announces itself as a heavy metal spawn right from the get-go. There’s no room for anticipation, as the guitar shredding hits you from all directions at the same time. It’s a full-on sensory assault with lines like “Celestial King walks water/ Hear words foretell destruction/ Hear words expose corruption.”
3. “Snakes for the Divine” from Snakes for the Divine
In an interview for UltimateGuitar.com, Pike was asked about the title track of their 2010 album. He said, “It’s based on the premise that Adam and Eve weren’t the first people on Earth, and Adam actually having a wife that was a Reptilian named Lilith.”
While the esoteric explanation may not be easily accessible to all High on Fire fans, it indicates that Pike is actually a very well-read lyricist. If anything, this song — which is eight minutes and twenty-three seconds long — totally destroys any condescending stereotypes about the heavy metal posse as just a bunch of party animals.
Curiously enough, this particular album got slammed by fans who thought that “it lacked the sophistication of previous material” and that it was “backsliding a bit on the songwriting as well.” Despite this, the title track has its staunch defenders.
2. “The Cave” from Luminiferous
This song has been singled out as “a bit of a departure” from Pike’s trademark style. In a Rolling Stone interview, Pike referred to this tune as “the first love song I ever wrote.”
He then disclosed that the song was about his ex-girlfriend, Katie Tague. Pike explained that while he considered her the love of his life, they had broken up because they hardly had time together. He admitted that the break-up affected him deeply.
Whatever the reason for the dissolution of the relationship, Pike definitely makes it clear that he’s distraught over it with lines like “Calm your heart and make it still/ Take your time and get your fill/ Dust and boots lay on the floor/ Fix my head behind your door.” Heartbreak and heavy metal never sounded so good.
1. “Blessed Black Wings” from Blessed Black Wings
Clocking in at seven minutes and forty-three seconds, the title track of the group’s 2005 album starts off with riotous guitar riff and drums that don’t let up.
It’s a wild tune whose lyrics can be described as dark poetry with lines like “The blood I bleed must be black indeed/ Speak the devil in my time of need/ Blessed black wings.”
It’s the kind of song that may scare off the uninitiated — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to this genre.