Six months after his previous band, Sleep, broke up, Matt Pike started a journey with High on Fire that is still going strong after more than 16 years. Based in Oakland, the band consists of Pike on guitars and vocals, Des Kensel on drums and Jeff Matz on bass. I’d bet the majority of our readers are familiar with the band, or at least an album or two, but if you’re a newbie, this will be a great jumping off point. I’m sure there’ll be backlash over why this or that song didn’t make it, but remember, this is my list—not a definitive top 10 for the band in any way, shape or form. Now then…let’s get to it, shall we?
“Hung, Drawn and Quartered” (from Surrounded by Thieves, 2002)
This was my intro to the band, and is still the song I think of when I hear their name. It starts off with their now-signature galloping drum beat, and soon after, Pike slices into the song with a mammoth guitar riff. The track picks up speed, then levels off to a breakneck, insanely heavy feel that doesn’t let up until the finishing notes. The production is thick and heavy on the low end, instantly making the song (and album) sound massive and lending greatly to the band’s overall dirty sound. From a purely sentimental standpoint, this is my top pick.
“Snakes for the Divine” (from Snakes for the Divine, 2010)
I’ve built up an absolutely astounding replay count for this thing over the years. The opening riff has Pike in top form, and once Kensel comes in with the drums, the rhythm displayed is infectious and catchy. “Snakes for the Divine” has some of the most memorable and catchy lyric lines and vocal deliveries that will worm their way in your head and stay there. With the speed, heaviness and intricacy of this song, I can only imagine what would happen hearing it front and center at one of the band’s live shows.
“Bloody Knuckles” (from De Vermis Mysteriis, 2012)
Loud and in your face from its opening lick to its guitar-riff-vs-drums death match, “Bloody Knuckles” simply goes for the throat. Hearing this song will make you wonder just how much air Pike can hold; some of the lines he growls connect into entire paragraphs, seemingly without even once taking a breath. Matz’s bass lines here weave and bob with the insane riffs, and once again we have a bulletproof rhythm that lays the heavy out nicely.
“Cometh Down Hessian” (from Blessed Black Wings, 2005)
“Cometh Down Hessian” opens with a lightly-strummed electric guitar passage, then pounds your chest with another fine display of galloping drum lines and riffs galore. In a weird way, you start to feel like a barbarian listening to it. Pike yells his lyrics with such conviction that you just know he means business. It’s another barn burner off a fine album that at the time became my favorite in their catalog up to that point. (And after getting the deluxe version, I quickly became “the guy who’ll constantly try to take over your DVD player and show you all that awesome HoF live footage” in my circles of friends. Memories!)
“Bastard Samurai” (from Snakes for the Divine, 2010)
I fell in love with the dark vibe this song emits. It has a truly heavy, muddy feel to it, and the guitar just oozes through most of the song. Only a band like High on Fire could talk about counting the loss of fingers and make it sound excruciatingly heavy. All cylinders fire evenly around the halfway point, before the band surfaces out of the sludge for a minute and moves into a solo whose high- and low-note interplay reminds me of a fight scene in a kung fu movie.
“Devilution” (from Blessed Black Wings, 2005)
Easily my favorite track off this album. More marching, galloping drums couple with still more crazy-heavy riffs, and the bass sounds so low and thick it almost forms a committed sonic relationship with the drums. Once this track gets rolling, it’s a straight ahead rocker that will leave you no choice but to bang your head in time with the rhythm.
“Fury Whip” (from Death is This Communion, 2007)
A long, three-chord intro leads into a faster stomp cadence with the instruments intertwining on one another. The pedal sticks to the proverbial metal from beginning to end on this thing—and with a name like “Fury Whip,” that’s entirely appropriate. By this point in my list, my feelings toward High on Fire—that they can do no wrong and are best measured in degrees of heaviness—should more or less be clear.
“Romulus and Remus” (from De Vermis Mysteriis, 2012)
Easily my favorite from this album. The song starts with some nasty feedback then proceeds to showcase the kind of doom riff Eyehategod might try. From the opening onward, the pacing doesn’t stray or fluctuate, so this is heavy in the monolithic sense. What’s really amazing here is the way all the instruments work together in the bridges to get even heavier. Just another example of how expertly the band puts their mark on the massive downtuned songs they are so good at.
“10,000 Years” (from The Art of Self Defense, 2000)
Being a Sleep fan, I know when I’m hearing an homage to that sound. Seeing as Pike was only a couple of years removed from his former group at the time this album was released, it’s hardly surprising to hear some of that sound creeping through in his attempts to find his footing after the fact. Things are kept very low and slow here in comparison to the band’s later material, but that’s precisely what endeared me to this track in the first place. The signs are there of what was to come, but overall this feels like Pike’s way of tipping his hat to the past and I thank him for it.
“Turk” (from Death is This Communion, 2007)
Let’s close this thing out with a bang. “Turk” blasts out of the gate with a fury and stays lean and mean all the way through to the end—no let up, no apologies. This track boasts an incredibly memorable chorus that even now—eight years later—will pop into my head every now and then. When it does, I can’t help but return to this ripper of a track and spin it a few times. It’s High on Fire through and through, and absolutely devastatingly heavy.
The Horns Up Top 10 on Spotify
So there you have it! The bottom line is this: High on Fire started heavy, has always been heavy and will continue to be heavy. If you weren’t a fan before, give this list a spin and convert yourself to the cause!