Stoned Free

High on Fire escapes cops, warns of "necromantic lunatics."

Don't ask where Des Kensel gets his ideas. From left: Kensel, Matt Pike, and Joe Preston.
Don't ask where Des Kensel gets his ideas. From left: Kensel, Matt Pike, and Joe Preston.
Inspiration strikes High on Fire in strange settings. Singer-guitarist Matt Pike conceives most of his literate, theologically informed lyrics in dingy dive bars.

"He'll say, 'Dude, what do you think about this?', and he'll give me a cocktail napkin with a bunch of shit scribbled on it," says drummer Des Kensel. "I'll say, 'What the fuck is this, man?', and we'll start laughing."

Then again, Kensel concocted the thunderous tom roll that opens the group's latest album, Blessed Black Wings, while sitting on the toilet.

"I went to take a crap, and I just started tapping on my thighs," he recalls.

Such stories -- and the "nasty fart" that sends the tour van's inhabitants into hysterics during this interview -- make clear that, despite its daunting instrumental prowess and polysyllabic odes to "macabre deities," High on Fire is a band without pretense.

On Blessed Black Wings, High on Fire repeats thick-toned riffs to hypnotic effect, with splintered solos cutting through the haze. Kensel's backbeats can be ominous -- resembling knocks on dungeon doors -- or subtle, like a ticking time bomb. Joe Preston (Melvins, Thrones), who joined the band during the Black Wings sessions, contributes labyrinthine prog-rock bass lines and low-end dirges. Pike's voice, an aggressively asthmatic death wheeze, makes it sound as if he's warning about "necromantic lunatics" through a freshly slit throat.

Pike's words, all medieval imagery and morbidity on the surface, function as obscure metaphors. "To Cross the Bridge," which ostensibly tells the tale of a "wandering warlord," addresses alcoholism: "Quench your thirst and drink this bottle/The warrior's chains are self-inflicted." It's an effective mix of power metal's fantasy escapism and contemporary hard rock's confessional instincts, though even Kensel gently mocks his bandmate's fondness for arcane language. "Sometimes I think he's just making words up, but I don't want to call him on it," he says.

High on Fire's current tour marks its first headlining outing in more than a year, which means it can play some of the six-minute-plus Black Wings tracks that were too long for an opening set. It converted hardcore-crazed crowds at last summer's Sounds of the Underground festival with thrashier fare. Kensel reports that fans weren't exactly moshing, but they were "getting more proactive."

So far, the only audiences to shun this unusually potent power trio came to see Cleveland's own Mushroomhead.

"We did not go over well at all," Kensel says of a bill that also included pre-popularity Shadows Fall and Avenged Sevenfold. "There were all these kids with painted-up faces, zippers, and suspenders."

Like Motörhead, High on Fire appeals to a broad headbanging spectrum, because it emphasizes volume and heavy grooves without worrying about fashion. But while punks, metalheads, and bikers all pledge allegiance, police have not been so friendly. High on Fire's van has been pulled over more than six times, with some of the incidents turning ugly.

"In Florida, they stopped us on the side of the road for six hours, but all they found were some stems and seeds," Kensel says. "In L.A., someone called in that we had a stolen trailer and were moving meth, and they pulled me out, face down to the freeway, assault rifles pointed at my head and helicopters circling ahead. They look at us, see the California plates, and think they're going to get the big score. They think we're stupid enough to drive with big quantities of drugs."

Perhaps the inspecting officers were familiar with Pike's discography. Before forming High on Fire, he headed Sleep, a seminal doom-rock outfit whose ill-fated 1999 major-label debut, Jerusalem, was a 52-minute ode to marijuana, laced with religious imagery.

Because Pike still uses power-plodding guitar lines, High on Fire gets assigned to the nebulous stoner-rock category. However, it doesn't revel in pot-leaf propaganda. Its stage setup includes a banner depicting Black Wings' airbrush-ready album artwork (a red-eyed gargoyle perched on a jagged peak), but the band isn't interested in supplementing its set with additional props or pyrotechnics. During one gig at the Agora, High on Fire saw the dangers of trying to do too much.

"There were only 40 people at this show. It was pathetic," Kensel recalls. "But this singer [Billy Bisson of the Janis Figure] decided to climb on top of the cabinets and try to swing like a monkey from the lighting, and the whole thing came crashing down. We didn't get to play, all because this guy figured he had to do a trapeze act."

By contrast, Pike, tethered to his guitar, doesn't move around much, and the group doesn't even engage in between-song banter. "We're trying to keep the flow intact," Kensel says. The group's repetitive riffs and tribal drums send spectators into an almost trancelike state, and High on Fire doesn't want to break that spell.

Growing up in Connecticut, a hardcore haven in which he shared stages with future members of Hatebreed and 100 Demons, Kensel learned to play blitzkrieg backbeats. However, with High on Fire, he aims for impact over velocity. Kensel never uses the double-bass pedal, the standard shortcut to an accelerated percussive pace, instead concentrating on colossal rolls and a tone that makes every strike seismic.

"Playing super-fast is great, but for me, it has to be more dynamic," he says. "Pink Floyd could be heavy -- just in a different way from Slayer. Heaviness is about the way a song can pull you in and give you a right cross to the nose."