Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

How High Was My Fire (or Why High on Fire Matters)

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Easily the best band on earth. I sincerely hope other bands pay attention and decide to eschew all the pretension and all the trends and just focus on creating real, honest-to-God ART. That’s a rare thing these days. – urdisturbing

I went to the Metal/Hardcore festival at the Palladium in Worcester in 1999 mainly to see Morbid Angel, a band I’d been into since 1991.

After reading about Morbid Angel in Spin, I picked up an Earache compilation called Grindcrusher at Disc Diggers (long since defunct) in Somerville (I also picked up Morbid Angel’s masterful Altars of Madness there shortly thereafter) and was introduced to their sound via “Chapel of Ghouls,” a Slayer-esque monolith of strangely psychedelic, thrashy death metal.

Of course, the rest of the cassette kicked as  well because Earache’s roster in the early 90s was a who’s who of genre-defining death and grind bands (Carcass, Entombed, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, Terrorizer, etc.). Given my association, then, of the label with a certain level of aesthetic quality, I was happy to come across a basket of discounted Earache cassettes sitting on a table in the hustle and bustle of the “labels” area set up at the Palladium that night.

After a bit of rummaging around I ended up buying some Napalm DeathFrom Enslavement to Obliteration and Harmony Corruption, if memory serves— and a tape that, like anything that matters, altered the course of my life: Sleep’s Holy Mountain.

I’ll be honest. I bought the thing because is was like two bucks and the cover boasted an intricately ornate graffiti tableau consisting mainly of variations on “pot leaf.” Listening to it while driving through the dark and wooded hills outside of 495, my mind just blew and blew. These Sabbath worshipers, thanks to their ability to craft a riff and wail trippily, took unabashed adulation to the point of mad originality. The first galloping notes of “Dragonaut” —the sinewy ooze of the bass line, the oddly chanted vocal (“Ride the dragon under Mars’ red sky”)— hooked me immediately. I couldn’t believe how great it sounded.

Two years later, I was in Montreal running a corporate love-in (which involved me in a rap battle with an unsung giant of the form, Nelson R.). It was summer and a group of us were sitting outside somewhere (near Rue Saint Denis?) and drinking and I was thumbing through some local anglophone rock magazine I had picked up somewhere in the course of our meanderings. Browsing the short reviews of various indie discs, a picture of a knight surrounded by flames caught my eye and drew me to a review of High on Fire’s The Art of Self Defense which mentioned that the band’s leader, Matt Pike, had been in Sleep and went on to hail this work as manna straight from stoner rock heaven.

Returning to Boston, I hit the nearest Newbury Comics and picked up the original Man’s Ruin pressing of this disc (the reissue featured an extra track, “Steel Shoe,” and a cover of my second favorite Celtic Frost song, “The Usurper”). From the mind-bending involutions of “Baghdad,” the opener, through the menacing lope of “10,000 years,” and into the relentless, bludgeon-wielding “Blood from Zion,” I was mesmerized, really in awe. It was so good on so many levels —overblown production, hoofbeat drumming, cryptic, esoteric  lyrics (that were simultaneously weirdly absurd -“Melding of the Riffchild/ from wall to the Universe/ Weed priest stoned arrival,” etc.), and that insane guitar sound. I was in love.

In other words, High on Fire began to mean something to me.

Like a week later I was riding the T to work and saw that High on Fire was playing that very night at the Linwood Grill. I talked my friend Greg into going and we went. The opening bands were Warhorse, creators of the monstrously doomy, “Black Acid Prophecy,” and Acid King, fronted by a solid, leather-and-denim biker chick, Lori S. Both bands were superheavy and great.

Nevertheless, High on Fire, who took the stage shirtless as Matt Pike is still wont to do, raised the whole thing to an incomparably higher level. What struck me most was the way Pike transformed from the stoner bro telling people that they might want to head out to the parking lot to smoke because the band was going to start playing to the maniacally focused driver of a charging bio-mechanoid juggernaut.

At the end of the show I said to him, “Dude, when you started playing, you just went somewhere. Where did you go?” He shook his head and kind of laughed and said, “I don’t know.” He said it like he really didn’t know, but sort of wondered.

Inspired by that performance, I posted the following review of The Art of Self Defense on Amazon:

Matt Pike is a shamanistic traveler tied to the spokes of the cosmick wheel. Sparks fly out of his eyes; his fingers function as disembodied emissaries from beyond time or thought. If you want to hear what I mean – listen to this cd. From the strange, medieval graphics bathed in fire and mystic light to the lyrics recounting ancient rites and prophesying mythological destinies, one senses immediately that this group of men has tapped into, in fact, is possessed by, a power not of this Earth, a power emanating from the immortal nexus of humanity and divinity. This power speaks most eloquently and devastatingly in the music itself. The mind-bending baroqueness of the serpentine riffage and the trance inducing repetition of the grooves, steeped in distortion’s chaotic density, weave a thick fabric in whose patterns one discerns the face of God. Of course, mortals cannot always endure such encounters with the force which rules and conditions the universe, the force of ultimate truth. Seen from this perspective, I believe that the title, “The Art of Self Defense,” refers to the techniques that a soul must master in order to protect itself from disintegration when exposed to absolute reality’s uncompromising blast.

There are a few performers that I’ve seen that came across as so weird that I couldn’t imagine them doing anything other than exactly what they’re doing. Saccharine Trust‘s Jack Brewer is one that comes to mind; Thalia Zedek is another. And then there’s Matt Pike.

He’s what people would call, “The Real Deal.” I say this in part because on stage there was no posturing or posing. Pike submerges in the music and plays with an unselfconsciously intense abandon that is in no-wise “carefee.” No way. This isn’t bullshit; it’s serious.

But I also say it because, off stage, the few times I’ve spoken with him or seen him interviewed, he comes across as awkward, guileless, and oddly distant. In spite of his tattoos, gnarled teeth, and nicotine and alcohol abraded rasp, he is an innocent (though his innocence is not that of a child, more like that shared by, as Norman Mailer put it, “the saint and the psychopath”).

This innocence, this faith (in one of the first interviews I read with him, he was being asked about some of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail symbolism on the first album and he said something like, the band didn’t believe in God, as such, “But we all believe in the Father”) still persists and continues to make High on Fire decidedly unhip. There is no irony whatsoever in what they do. Instead, what you find there is a belligerent and, at the same time, almost apologetic honesty.

When High on Fire started to matter to me, it wasn’t just because of the music. Rather, it was the idea of them, that what they were doing had some meaning to it and fit into some overarching, though not coherently articulated, narrative or world concept. That the music, for them, while it could be undeniably “rad” (and they have a defined aesthetic to which they diligently adhere), was also part of of something bigger: a journey, a path, a mission.

The next time I saw High on Fire was at the Middle East in Cambridge and the one opening act I caught was the amazingly autochtonic Jucifer. In between sets I was talking to the t-shirt/merch guy traveling with High on Fire and I mentioned that the crowd seemed to be pretty guy-heavy. He said, “Yeah! It’s like being on a pirate ship!”

Now, High on Fire’s performance that night wasn’t particularly awesome. Maybe I was tired or maybe I had been so pleasantly surprised by Jucifer that the bar had been raised or maybe it was this “pirate ship” thing and the sense I had that I was watching a dojo engage in a public display of martial arts prowess, but their music felt more like something to be endured than to be enjoyed. The pummeling was just so relentless —those “tribal” drums, that squamous bass, the undifferentiated grinding wash of that guitar, the sheet metal scrape of that voice— it was too much, and not in a great way.

There was another thing. The innocence bothered me because it came across as both insular and out of it. This was October of 2002 (or thereabouts), a year after September 11th and the run up to the Iraq War was well under way. They were selling t-shirts that sported a crazed anarchist setting a bomb (the old, round black kind) with “High on Fire” printed over it. There was a time, albeit a hundred years ago, when that image meant “Terrorist.” It was kind of punk to put that out in the midst of anti-terrorist hysteria, but I don’t think the t-shirt makers or the t-shirt hawkers were trying to say anything or make any connection between the band and current events.

That became clear when Pike introduced “Baghdad,” the song which had really sold me on them. There was no mention of the coming war, Bush, Saddam, or anything else because, frankly, Pike wasn’t talking about contemporary Baghdad; he was talking about the Baghdad of the 12th Century when secret teachers walked the streets and Ismaelites immolated themselves at the command of the Old Man of the Mountain. It showed how they dwell in a mythical time totally divorced from present reality. It’s noble, in a way, but also insane.

After the show, Pike was kind of pacing around like someone who was trying not to get into a fight. I started talking to him about the Knights Templar and whether or not they saw themselves as some suchlike roving band of arrant mystics. I’m not sure how anyone should respond to that line of questioning but all he did was ask if I had any smoke on me. I didn’t so he blew me off. But then, thirty seconds later came back, shook my hand, apologized for being so gruff and thanked me for coming out. (Look, I got it. After a gig, you’re looking for either sex or drugs or both and, frankly, you generally get drugs off the dudes.)

I ended up seeing High on Fire once more after that at the Linwood but Pike was sick (touring with the flu must suck), he broke a string in like the second song and immediately after their last song went into a room just behind the stage and collapsed onto a pile of amps, drums, and mic stands.

Seven years later, just this past weekend, I went and saw High on Fire again and I’m glad I did. First of all, these guys have been playing for over ten years and it shows (the new-ish bass player, Jeff Matz, is a solid addition). They also have a lot of songs which  allowed them to put together a very strong set (heavy on the most recent album, natch, but not overly). The first song, “Frost Hammer,” was a shakedown cruise as they got the mix together but was followed by “Turk.” This chaotic, multi-pronged masterpiece was so well executed and shockingly awesome it reminded me what I was looking for when, after a very long Saturday, I drove into the heart of Cambridge to see a band that most people have never heard of for the fourth time. I was cackling, laughing, banging my head and, frankly, ecstatic.

These guys are heavy and intense and you really feel it after subjecting yourself to the onslaught for an hour and a half. Still, I would do it again. In spite of the high energy, as a friend of mine said, it’s not exactly aggressive music. In spite of their pummeling, cavalry-charge approach, you don’t feel assaulted, you feel, I don’t know, purified. That is, you feel like you’ve endured something but not an attack (as was my experience years before), more like a ritual (like in A Man Called Horse or something). In fact, at one point I actually entered an interstitial space between dimensions and was walking as an ascended being in an endless field of turquoise and white light. That’s what I’m talking about.

I realized afterwords that this kind of music —I mean intricate, Slayer-infused thrash and High on Fire’s brand of it in particular— is the only kind that truly overwhelms me. Other music has certainly moved, inspired, and otherwise impressed me, but this music pushes me beyond the limits of speech and comprehension into a kind of visceral oneness with something that is both superhuman and far beyond human. It is, in the old, Kantian sense of the word sublime: terrifying and illuminating all at once.

High on Fire still matters. They may even matter more than ever. They are in top form. Pike, who appeared on stage without a shirt as ever, didn’t seem earnest, angry or distracted. In fact he seemed happy, psyched to be playing and totally in his element. It was good to see.

This music isn’t for everybody, I admit, and it almost requires a kind of initiation, an epiphanic moment where you can see through its utter maleness (the crowd was easily 90% men), überdeafening volume, and avalanchine relentlessness. But if you can make the journey, submit in some way, as the band has submitted, to this sound, this vision, it will take you some place that music has been taking people for 10,000 years, but where very few of those currently living on Earth are willing to go.

Image source: Stephen Dyrgas.

Category: Enlightenment, Music

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