High On Fire are a heavy metal band. Let that soak in for a minute. What at first appears to be a pedestrian observation (i.e., “No shit”) is a distinguishing factor for the Oakland-based trio. Over the last few years of its becoming a point of interest within mainstream media, heavy metal’s identification has become the unintentionally hilarious concerted efforts to avoid calling it anything but heavy metal. Extreme music, experimental neo-folk noisecore, blackened doom post-crust, or any number of suspiciously pie-like descriptors are doled out with the utmost sincerity to the point that labeling a band as simply heavy fucking metal is likely to result in confusion, anger, and, finally, an all-caps invective on why it’s “so much more than that.” That’s all well and good, but I’ll be damned if one of the most reliable heavy bands of the last 15 years isn’t one who’s kept it straightforward and sans bullshit.
Metal fans are known for our innate ability to compare the music we love to things like lightning, thunder, Satan, Balrog, She’ol, or whatever else sounds like it was born out of the depths of a Tolkien acid trip you had while vacationing on the surface of Saturn. This isn’t because of fascinations with astronomy or mythological narratives — though there is that, too — but rather because the music takes you there instead of to your sad place where tears are currency and you’ve just gone bankrupt. Sometimes heavy metal is just that, and you don’t have to tack on anything else out of fear that it’s just too easy to label it as such. Just be grateful that Bolt Thrower never incorporated a hurdy gurdy or children’s choir at any point during their career, and embrace the uncomplicated.
Since forming in 1998, High On Fire’s reputation within the heavy metal world has reached the kind of legendary status usually reserved for flaming unicorns or winged serpents with grenade launchers for eyes. The hyperbole isn’t without merit, though. Over the course of seven LPs and a handful of splits and EPs, the band’s contribution to heavy metal of the 21st century has come fist and fury straight from the guitar brilliance of frontman Matt Pike. Worn-out shirtless jokes aside, Pike is a masterful guitarist whose glass-sandwich-covered-in-gasoline vocals are the only kind that could ever hope to match what he’s doing with his hands. Combined with the full throttle roil of drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz, High On Fire’s perspective on the basic structure of heavy metal’s most sneering qualities is anything but simple.
Of course, High On Fire are probably most beloved for their live show, because there’s nothing else like it on this planet. They just announced U.S. tour dates for December 2015, and you should absolutely see them if you live within five hours of any city in which the band is performing. But their recorded work is equally essential. Though not given to much deviation from their norm, High On Fire have certainly polished and trimmed what little fat existed from their sound, resulting in some of their finest work yet on more recent releases like 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis and this year’s Luminiferous. Not so much experimentation as an exposition on their inarguably successful formula, those records exhibit a kind of compositional focus and maturity. The result is a band that sounds completely at ease with who they are and just as aware of what they’re not. It’s that unabashed self-awareness and satisfaction that lends High On Fire’s music its notoriously unhinged hellfire gallop. So before you ready your Caps Lock button and list of synonyms for “dumbshit,” understand that these are just 10 of the best High On Fire songs.
10. “Baghdad” (from The Art Of Self Defense, 2000)
Unless you were the cool kid who had all the demos and tapes and EPs before anyone else back in 2000, then your first experience with High On Fire was this opening track from the band’s debut album. Produced by the revered Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Sleep, the Melvins, etc.), The Art Of Self Defense sounds like the dirtiest thing put to tape since that black metal band with the indecipherable logo and snowy trees for album art released their demo out of a shack just outside Oslo. “Baghdad” isn’t a slow-burning reveal of High On Fire’s mystique, because there is no mystique. No, not even counting Pike’s recent obsession with metaphysical, time-warping messiahs and True Detective. Anything that obscures the riff is disposed of, and quickly. With “Baghdad,” that focused perspective was made abundantly clear from the band’s very beginnings — with the song roaring right out the gate and spending the entirety of its five-plus minutes taking nü-metal to the woodshed for a lesson in heavy fucking metal.
9. “Death Is This Communion” (from Death Is This Communion, 2007)
Compared to prior High On Fire releases, Death Is This Communion is noticeably more subdued and more focused on verse/chorus hook-savvy accessibility. The shift was slight, but oddly took very little from the band’s ever-present ferocity. The album’s title track is a prime example of the band’s foray into experimenting with those sounds they knew as opposed to those that might just be fucked-up for the sake of alienating every hesher and non-hesher alike that worshipped them. At 8:30, “Death Is This Communion” is the longest-running track on the album, but even with its slow-tempered pace, it doesn’t drag. The credit is due largely to Kensel and Matz laying the song’s foundation with a cyclical rhythmic dance, giving Pike’s guitar and vocal an invaluable framework around which to build the song. While much of High On Fire’s accolades focus (and rightfully so) on the breakneck speed and frenetic pace of their music, “Death Is This Communion” is a damn compelling argument that these three guys can consume any tempo like [mythological dragon simile redacted].
8. “Hung, Drawn, And Quartered” (from Surrounded By Thieves, 2002)
Some bands give their songs messed-up names for shock purposes. Some bands assign enigmatic titles to their songs because that’s deep or something. High On Fire are a heavy metal band, so when you see “Hung, Drawn, And Quartered,” you can be damn certain that once the needle drops, you’re getting the medieval treatment. All shoddy exaggerations aside, this song from Surrounded By Thieves is as close to going off the rails as anything in the history of heavy metal. Beginning again with Kensel’s powerhouse drumming, the song immediately kicks into an onslaught of guitar, bass, drums, noise, and even drone characteristics all coiled together in what might be a chaotic mess for most other bands. It’s another example of what makes High On Fire so unique: The line from the ground to the stratospheric melee of these songs somehow manages to stay intact. “Hung, Drawn, And Quartered” is High On Fire deliberately throwing everything into the heap and coming out with a gauntlet of a song.
7. “Rumors Of War” (from Death Is This Communion, 2007)
Deceptively short in its running time, “Rumors Of War” likely couldn’t be any longer simply for the fact that the band/management were concerned for listener safety. No band has ever carried the torch of Motörhead with such unabashed ferocity as High On Fire, and “Rumors Of War” serves as the primary exhibit of that fact. Of course there are countless other bands who’ve taken pages from Lemmy’s book, but songs like this aren’t just a well-executed homage to influence. They’re a continuation and reimagining of that influence into something that’s just as much a dominating piledrive of music as that of its forebear. For that reason, “Rumors Of War” plays with a boiling urgency that comes to an appropriately abrupt halt at just under three minutes. While many of their songs extend much further, the punk-touched setup here dictates the lean songwriting approach. It’s a brief glimpse of the inarguable fact that High On Fire don’t have time for the slow build into eruption. The explosion here is immediate, exacting, and uncompromisingly heavy.
6. “Carcosa” (from Luminiferous, 2015)
High On Fire’s most recent release plays like a perfect companion piece to the preceding De Vermis Mysteriis. Due in large part to the band bringing back that album’s producer, Kurt Ballou, Luminiferous finds Pike noticeably incorporating more melody in his vocals. The hooks are ever-present, sure, but the songs are just as much a roundhouse kick to the face as anything in the band’s catalog. Of its nine tracks, the album’s standout is this seven-minute monster. Including a bone-shattering solo from Pike, “Carcosa” isn’t thunderous: It’s a wall cloud spitting out riff tornadoes like a heavy metal assembly line from hell. Though the album’s opener, “The Black Pot,” is a fantastic and expectedly explosive starting point, “Carcosa” puts on display every tool at the band’s disposal, commanding a mid-tempo death march to the guttural surge of the music. The song is definitively High On Fire, of course, but it’s more than a lateral reliance on formula. Pike, Matz, and Kensel are perceptive of those small adjustments needed to make a good song a memorable one. “Carcosa” does that with unforgiving conviction.
5. “Serums Of Liao” (from De Vermis Mysteriis, 2012)
High On Fire could give seminars on how heavy metal albums should kick off. Rather than begin with ominous wolf howls, church bells tolling, or some sample from a French horror film that you haven’t seen, the band simply cuts the bullshit and gets to the music. For a perfect example of this, look no further than 2012’s excellent De Vermis Mysteriis, which leads with the remarkable “Serums Of Liao.” Featuring six minutes of Kensel’s best drum work ever, the song is the auditory equivalent of every fight scene in Roadhouse and Bloodsport combined. Though he’d likely not admit it himself, producer/engineer Kurt Ballou’s deviation from the sheen of the band’s previous album is immediately known and just as successfully executed. “Serums Of Liao” is no “Snakes For The Divine” in terms of stratospheric riffs, but then again, High On Fire aren’t having to hedge their bets on one playable hand. From Kensel’s thrashing intro into the low-end rumble that spans the song’s entirety, “Serums Of Liao” is a damn near perfect fusion of High On Fire’s gnarled and dirty beginnings and the more compositionally focused direction they’d learned to embrace in the time since. The song is a welcome earworm, with Pike’s melodic hacksaw tearing through one of the band’s most magnetic refrains. For an album with a storyline featuring wormholes and multiples Jesuses, De Vermis Mysteriis is arguably the group’s most grounded release since Blessed Black Wings, offering listeners a heavy-as-all hell version of the High On Fire they’d always loved.
4. “Surrounded By Thieves” (from Surrounded By Thieves, 2002)
The title track from the band’s sophomore album comprises perhaps the ugliest and most rancorous 4:20 (of course) minutes in all of High On Fire’s discography. Pike sounds like he’s caught in a time warp between that eye thing in one of the LOTR movies and any scene from Trainspotting. It’s weird and trippy without being shtick, which — given the nature of fog both literal and figurative expected with this band — is a notable achievement. “Surrounded By Thieves” is one of the High On Fire songs that most recalls Pike’s other band, Sleep, with its hyper distorted guitars and the fact that it sounds like it was recorded from the inside of a toolbox being thrown down a well. Oddly enough, it’s that very thing that gives the song the kind of teeth that whole scores of metal bands spend careers trying to capture with little to no success. But it’s yet another testament to what’s continued to make High On Fire work so well. None of the music is arbitrarily constructed with the hopes of sounding like anything. Pike is offering an extension of himself, and if that’s too abstract for you, then consider the fact that the group has never punished fans by trying to be anything other than what they’re amazing at doing — which, let’s be honest, isn’t capable of being done by anyone else. “Surrounded By Thieves” hammers down that perspective with malice, giving just enough of a reference point for listeners before gnashing its way through whatever expectations they might have had.
3. “Devilution” (from Blessed Black Wings, 2005)
As the opening track from High On Fire’s most revered album, “Devilution” doesn’t have the longer running time of its companion tracks; instead, this is High On Fire at their most wonderfully apeshit. Here’s the thing: Any number of metal bands can slobber their way through songs that are fast, heavy, and hard. That’s the name of the game. The winners, though, bring that clusterfuck from Point A to Point Z with razor-edged precision and focus, without detracting from well-timed digressions in composition. The pandemonium is controlled just enough to give the song some movement rather than letting it wallow in a really good hook. It’s a mistake often made with High On Fire that the songs live and die by Pike’s undeniable proclivity for churning them out like a shirtless and sweaty assembly line, but songs like “Devilution” and many more (including all on this list) are formidable as much for the synchronicity and clever songwriting of all three members as they are for Pike’s guitar wizardry. Even as a sort of anomalous inclusion on Blessed Black Wings, “Devilution” speaks to the group’s versatility in creating sonic destruction, regardless of tempo. It’s an impressive quality, and one that the band has continued cultivating to outstanding ends.
2. “Snakes For The Divine” (from Snakes For The Divine, 2010)
The collective worry over the band’s first release from E1 music was only exacerbated by their choice of producer: Greg Fidelman, whose work with groups like Bush, Audioslave, Slipknot, etc., signified the blunting of High On Fire’s edge. Sure, the record is noticeably more polished than any other in the band’s catalog, but even with slick production, the band’s signature sound boils through like sulfuric acid, leaving zero doubt that you can’t put a veneer on this kind of heavy metal and expect it to sound like something else. With that, 2010’s Snakes For The Divine wasted no time in allaying the concerns of the fretful via its opening title track. All hyperbole aside, I dare you to find a heavy metal album of the last 15 years with a more dominating jump-off point than “Snakes For The Divine.” The opening riff alone is the kind of stuff where metal classics like “Enter Sandman,” “Paranoid,” and “Number Of The Beast” are born. What’s more is that despite the gripes regarding production, the song likely wouldn’t be nearly as effectively commanding were it not for its polished treatment. Coming in at 1:30, Pike meets one of metal’s most memorable riffs with his snarling howl, converging into what could have easily soundtracked Braveheart or Gladiator or the entirety of the Middle Ages. Should you doubt the badassery of “Snakes For The Divine,” I challenge you to listen to the first two minutes without banging your head or even feeling the involuntary movement of your hands forming fists and punching the air. Best of luck. There’s a reason the band usually reserve this song for the end of their live sets — and that’s because if they played it any earlier, the venue would burn to the ground.
1. “Blessed Black Wings” (from Blessed Black Wings, 2005)
High On Fire’s 2005 LP, Blessed Black Wings, a nine-track hymnal to all things epic. Yes. This album is epic. It could serve as the soundtrack to a supernova colliding with a black hole if not for the fact that the music would likely dwarf the magnitude of the event itself. Just under eight minutes of cutthroat, raw fury, “Blessed Black Wings” is a showcase for every one of High On Fire’s most dominating characteristics. Pike’s vocal flirtation with recognizable melody only adds to the barbed push/pull of the song’s rolling pace. Though the band has leaned more toward the upbeat thrash-tinged rhythm since Blessed Black Wings, the title track to that album remains a definitive landmark of just why that subtle change was the most natural (and best) progression they could take. Nothing about this song is glammed over or slick. Engineered by Steve Albini, the album was the band’s second for Relapse, and third overall, so at the fish-or-cut-bait moment of their career, Blessed Black Wings answered any questions of whether High On Fire were the proverbial one-trick pony. The answer was a resounding “Yes” — and the group’s “one trick” was unmatched by and incomparable to those favored by any of their contemporaries. When you heard Pike’s vocals and that throat scorching “Wiiiiiiiiiings!” lowering the song’s battle-axe, you don’t wonder what the band will try next. You just hope to hell it’s more of the same.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.