Some bands struggle as they get older. Lacking the pressure of expectations, a debut album can conjure inspired genius, only to be followed by the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Metal bands, particularly vulnerable to the physical demands of their music, can lose the speed and ferocity with which they played in their youths, or succumb to market pressure to make their sound more palatable. It may not have seemed possible considering the strength of its prior releases, but High on Fire has managed to continually improve with age.
Case in point: When it came time for the Oakland metal trio to write its fifth album, Snakes for the Divine, the biggest challenge the members faced was how to whittle down about four hours worth of material it had in the can. On 2007’s Death Is This Communion, vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike had purposely sung within his range; this time he’s hitting larger and higher notes — the result, he says, of more lung power and better control. Drummer Des Kensel, having gone through two surgeries related to playing injuries, got an endorsement from Tama and finally built his dream kit, adding another kick drum and rack tom. Now, he’s doing double bass with two drums (as opposed to one drum and two pedals).
That doesn’t mean the songwriting was easy. To the contrary, Pike says it’s only gotten more difficult. “We challenge ourselves all the time, so we make it hard on ourselves a lot on purpose ’cause all of us are good and all of us strive to be better,” he said at an Oakland bar on a recent Friday afternoon. To that end, Snakes for the Divine shows the band pushing itself musically, yet still sounding undeniably like High on Fire. The songs are heavier, more complex, thoughtfully arranged, and technically impressive. In short, Snakes for the Divine is the sound of a band at the top of its game — except there’s no indication that a decline is in sight.
The opening title track starts off with an AC/DC “Thunderstruck”-like guitar riff, then unleashes a fast, low-end rumble in which bassist Jeff Matz matches Pike’s playing with jaw-dropping accuracy. After the similarly revved-up “Frost Hammer,” the pace is broken up by “Bastard Samurai,” a return to the band’s groovier, doomier roots. Despite the song’s slower tempo, it’s one of the more difficult tracks for Pike to play live. “It’s fucking hard,” he said. “I use my toggle switch and there’s all this footwork and I have to sing at the same time. So it’s kinda confusing.” That’s followed up by the dizzying intro riffage of “Ghost Neck” with Kensel laying down that tom-heavy “tribal” beat he’s known for. “Fire Flood and Plague” sounds like classic High on Fire — but tighter and fuller, if possible. Epic closer “Holy Flames of the Firespitter” employs a war-cry chorus behind a thick groove, with Kensel, Matz, and Pike sounding like a unified battle unit mowing down fields of mediocrity.
Partial credit for the band’s recharged sound goes to new producer Greg Fidelman, who was behind Slayer’s World Painted Blood, Johnny Cash’s American V: A Hundred Highways, and Metallica’s Death Magnetic. “We were trying to figure out who to use as a producer,” Kensel recalled. “We were thinking about Jack [Endino] again, Terry Date was another guy, Kurt [Ballou] from Converge, and then our new manager said that he’s been dealing with Greg Fidelman because he’s been working with Slayer. And we’re, like, whatever man, we’re not gonna be able to afford this guy.”
Despite their limited budget, Fidelman showed interest. “He flew up and watched us practice and we just barraged him with all this music,” said Pike, who added that the band ultimately chose him as much as he chose the band. But from the get-go, it was apparent that their material was going to need shaping. “He’s like, ‘Jesus, you guys are fucking out of control, you have like four albums going on.'”
In August, the band flew to Los Angeles and rented a practice room for about two and a half weeks of preproduction. Five of the eight songs were already completed. Two — “Ghost Neck” and “Bastard Samurai” — were written during that time, while the title track got more added onto it (although the intro riff of “Ghost Neck” was something Pike had around since the band’s early days). “We had just so much music, the hardest part for us was arranging it and putting it together in a way that made sense,” said Matz.
Thus, Fidelman was crucial to the creative process. “He was kinda like a fourth ear to us, and he’s like, well what if, what if, giving us what ifs,” said Pike. “So he was way more hands on than, say, Endino …. Fidelman was all, ‘No, dude, that needs something that goes there.’ That’s the difference between a producer and a kind of a producer-slash-engineer. He’s a producer. He had a lot to do with the way the album was put together.”
Also aiding the songwriting process was a newly acquired sixteen-track digital recorder, which allowed the band to develop parts without other members being present. Kensel says Matz’ bass parts on “Bastard Samurai” came together that way, while Kensel laid down the drum beat for “Holy Flames of the Firespitter” and “Frost Hammer,” which sparked Pike to start playing along. “A lot of stuff sort of evolved that way,” said Matz. In addition, Pike said they “try everything in threes, everything in fours, try every angle until it sounds right to all of us.”
By the time the band headed into the studio in September, it was well oiled. The guys clocked in nine to fourteen hours a day — “just belting it out and getting perfect takes,” said Pike. Recording at the Pass Studios in Los Angeles not only allowed the band a comfortable recording environment with all the amenities, but one in which the members — away from home distractions — could focus completely on the music.
The majority of the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar were recorded live (fully digital, for the first time in the band’s career), with the three playing altogether. Production-wise, High on Fire has gradually moved away from the very muddied sound it started off with — and Snakes is no exception to the trend. Matz says he “wanted it to sound huge, with a really big, warm, bottom end.” Pike’s goals were “huge and separated.”
Though clearly serious and ambitious about their music (they practice for a couple hours a day, four to five days a week), Pike, Kensel, and Matz also have an easy, jokey rapport, which no doubt lends itself to getting along in the studio and on the road. “The communication thing is major when you’re on a roving hotel room for that long,” said Pike.
Having just gotten off a successful nationwide tour opening for Dethklok and Mastodon, the band is primed to embark on a headlining tour in March — its first in two years. (It plays Oakland’s Fox Theater on May 8 with Mastodon, Baroness, Black Cobra, Priestess, and others.) With so much experience on tour supporting bigger bands, and thus playing to audiences who aren’t familiar with their music, Pike says he’s realized that, beyond songwriting and musicianship, learning to be an entertainer is also key. “You need to psyche that thing inside people up so that they’re having a good time,” he said. “So that’s your job, too, on top of trying to recite all this. It can be overwhelming and exhausting in your brain.”
Indeed, playing in High on Fire can take its toll. There’s the touring, the partying, and the need to be at peak performance at all times. But the band’s limitations have instead necessitated improved technique. Pike works on his “rock moves” while Kensel approaches his playing with better control and accuracy.
Getting it to all gel together is a minor miracle. But they succeeded on Snakes for the Divine. “Trying to come up with ideas of what direction it’s gonna go in or try to add a part we already had onto it, and then on top of that then have it sound right, feel right, and have us all into it and agree on it, that was definitely challenging, but I think we definitely did it,” Kensel said, then caught himself sounding like an earnest, after-school special. “We did it, man!”
Lyrically, Matt Pike conjures up his usual sources of inspiration on Snakes for the Divine: religion and spirituality, hard times, weird David Icke conspiracies, and H.P. Lovecraft imagery. But there are some surprising meanings, too. Here, Pike shares some of his concepts behind the cryptic lyrics:
“Snakes for the Divine”
“‘Snakes for the Divine’ was based upon the idea that Adam and Eve weren’t the first people on Earth. They were the first people to take the reptoid DNA, which is a David Icke theory, and Adam had a wife named Lillith before Eve and she ate her young because you know certain animals will eat their young if their young they know aren’t healthy. So I take it that the human reptoid experiment didn’t work with that so they found a different way to inseminate Eve, which has to do with her and the snake and all that.”
“How Dark We Pray”
“‘How Dark We Pray’ is along the same lines but it’s also kinda about my mom dying and me losing faith in religion, not spirituality so much.”
“‘Ghost Neck’ is about a dude who used to be a friend of mine. I never got it off my chest but he stole a girl that I loved from me and got her hooked on heroin with him. I just kinda got it off my chest, cussing someone out but I’m just putting it in lyrics. That one hurt me a long time ago, and that’s still lingering, how fucked up that was.”
“That’s about a comic book. This fan of ours used to always come to the shows and bring this Bastard Samurai book and I really got into the comic book. It’s about this total samurai guy who just kinda wanders around but the yakuza bet on him all the time. And he has this one girl that’s like a guide. … He’ll just get ambushed anywhere … and he just kills everything in sight. And it sounded good, you know.”
“‘Frost Hammer’ is like a welcome to the world to my drummer’s kid. Because we were outside when he told me his wife is pregnant, it was really cold out, I was like, ‘What are we gonna call him, Frost Hammer?’ Then they started asking me what they should name their kid and then I’m all, ‘You know his name, it’s Frost Hammer, bro.’ It was like a joke and then all of a sudden I wrote the initial verse lyrics and then Jeff wrote this whole separate part onto the end of it. It’s kind of like me and Jeff’s, as far as lyrics go, welcome to the world, Frost Hammer, guy, little dude, whatever. And it also sounds metal.”