There are metal bands that offer writers an easy story angle, whether due to a titillating back story ("Church burnings!") or some attention-grabbing quirk in their music ("Black metal with bagpipe solos!") Then there are bands like High on Fire, made up of blue-collar metal dudes who pretty much just make music, plain and simple.
The Oakland, Calif., trio has been consistently touring and putting out records for the past decade. Their most recent studio album, Snakes for the Divine, is not radically different from the four that preceded it. Apart from switching record labels a couple of times and having to find a new bass player every few years (current bassist Jeff Matz, with the band since 2007, is their fourth), their biography doesn't offer a lot of twists and turns.
Over the years, they've developed an instantly recognizable sound, one that owes as much to (fellow power trios) Motörhead and Celtic Frost as it does to doom-metal pioneers Black Sabbath. It is a dense, dank, clobbering approach — and guitarist/frontman Matt Pike's barbaric, bellowing vocals don't add much in the way of sweetening, either. As uncompromising (and, at times, uninviting) as they might be, High on Fire have seen their popularity steadily grow: Snakes debuted at number 62 on the Billboard 200 this past February, and the band opened for Metallica during a stretch of their European tour in May.
"We just do our thing," says drummer Des Kensel when asked if he's surprised at how far the band has come. "Am I surprised? Yes and no.... We're writing the songs that we like. I guess we're just lucky enough that enough people like it to put money in the machine and keep us going."
Snakes for the Divine is the band's first album for quasi-major label E1 (formerly Koch). In an unrelated move, they recorded the album with big-time producer Greg Fidelman, who handled the most recent albums by Slayer and Metallica. Kensel says Fidelman was the most demanding producer they've worked with, as well as the most actively involved one in terms of the creative process.
"He said, 'I'd really like to do some preproduction, and I would like to sit down and really become a part of this record,'" recalls Kensel. "And we'd never done something like that before, so we figured we'd give it a shot. It worked out good, 'cause he definitely pushed as far as our capabilities on our instruments."
The album doesn't have quite the same filthy guitar sound as earlier albums; to my ears, 2002's Surrounded by Thieves is still their best sounding record. Still, there's nothing anyone would call "radio friendly" about the record, either in terms of the songwriting — most tracks clock in at somewhere between six to eight minutes — or the production. High on Fire have made a point of avoiding the triggered drums and overly processed guitar tones that have ruined a good portion of metal recordings over the last decade. Snakes is no different in this regard.
"We've all spent a lot of time — as in, like, years and years — trying to perfect our sound," Kensel explains. "I know I've tried all kinds of different drums, different drum heads, different techniques of tuning. And I know Matt and Jeff, they've bought many different amps, different strings, different tubes. We've definitely got a tone that we like and we're proud of it. You can't perfectly mimic that coming out of a stereo speaker, but we want to try to get it as close as possible. [We] definitely wouldn't want to fuck it up by using too many effects of making it too compressed or anything like that."
While it may be impossible to mimic the band's monstrous live sound on record, you can at least adjust the volume when listening at home. This can come in handy, given that the band is — or at least used to be — one of the loudest on the planet. One of the most remarkable things about their longevity as a band is that it means they actually still have their hearing intact.
"We've taken it down a notch, for sure, on the volume," confesses Kensel. "I mean, at first it was cool. It was kind of like, 'Let's go in there with as much as we got and as loud as we can get it.' It's kind of like pulling up in front of a bar and revving your motorcycle as loud as it'll go. We've kind of backed off from that. We try to concentrate on just a good mix now—[to] have it loud, but not to where it's, like, 'hurting loud.' It was a little hard to get Matt to take away a cabinet or two and turn down, but it's all for the greater good."
Hear "Frost Hammer" from Snakes for the Divine at stereogum.com.