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Oakland sludge trio High on Fire has kept the heavy-metal flame alive and burning for 14 years, having formed following guitarist/singer Matt Pike’s time in doom/stoner group Sleep. And with each new chapter in the band’s scorching legacy, Pike, drummer Des Kensel, and bassist Jeff Matz further challenge what a power trio can do. Somehow, over time, they’ve managed to grow louder, more epic, and even catchier.
The band’s sixth album, De Vermis Mysteriis, in many ways is classic High on Fire. Recorded with Converge’s Kurt Ballou, it balances punishing sludge riffs with epic solos and high-octane tempos. The first half alone is an exercise in ferocity: “Bloody Knuckles” pounds out a hook-laden variation of the band’s classic churn; “Fertile Green” lunges into an ultra-menacing stomp; “Madness of an Architect” taps into its Sabbath-y roots for old-fashioned doom.
Here Kensel speaks about going back to basics, writing in the studio, and “Eureka!” moments.
Do you have a “Eureka!” moment when you know that a song is finished?
Yeah. I mean, sometimes it will be more challenging. After a while, you keep trying all these different arrangements, and different parts here and there. Mentally, it’s very draining. And we’re just like, “Fuck it — I don’t care.” And we’ll go back to it tomorrow, or next week. Actually, a lot of times some songs end up in the graveyard, and it might come back to life a couple records later. And there are other ones where it’s like…we write it really fast, and boom — we got a song. One thing we tried to do on this record is have a couple songs where it’s really simple, three parts, nothing too intricate. That’s kind of the origin of High on Fire: really basic, catchy, simple riffs. All it really needed was three parts, and it kind of wrote itself.
Did you have a specific direction in which you wanted to take De Vermis Mysteriis when you entered the studio?
Not really. Even if we did, it always changes. We always have an idea of a direction to head in, but once you start writing songs, it comes down to crunch time and you say, “All right, song sounds cool, on to the next one.” We’re always trying to build on our songwriting skill, whether it’s improving songwriting or getting better at musicianship. This is record number six, and technically, we’re getting better, but…I don’t want to say we regressed, but some of it is definitely sounding more like our first two records — like some of the slower stuff, or just straightforward drum beats and simple power-chord riffs. So, writing-wise, we might have a direction going in the studio, but it always changes. We just try to go from one song to the next, and just try to bust it out.
How finished were the new songs by the time you were ready to record?
Each recording, they’re less and less finished. Actually, the first two weeks of this recording — we call it pre-production, but it’s actually kind of like finishing writing. I think over the years, and record after record, between tours, we’ll go over and rehearse over in our studio in Oakland. You have days where you get a lot accomplished. But then you have days when it’s like, “Sorry, guys, can’t make it to practice because I can’t put my kid in daycare.” [Laughs] We’re not 23 anymore.
But luckily, we had the budget and time. And after talking with Kurt [Ballou] in the studio, we had the time to go in there and not just finish the songs we were working on but actually write a bunch of songs from parts we’d had lying around for a long time. At first, maybe we weren’t too psyched on it, but in a studio environment, we’d play them and say, “That’s pretty fuckin’ killer.” So we went in with half an album, and while we were in the studio, we wrote the other half and put the finishing touches on it.
How comfortable do you like to be with songs before you’re ready to record them?
I mean, it’s funny, because I talked to Kurt about this. Ideally, I’d like to play a record for a few weeks before tracking it. But it also can get to the point where it’s sort of robotic, when you’re playing it every night. You kind of lose some of the raw energy from that first take of a new song. When you hear that first take, sometimes you just get all excited and you’re like, “That’s fucking awesome.” But the more and more you try to perfect it, the more you can take away from the feel of it. So I wouldn’t want to go too crazy.