Holy Smoke: Matt Pike on High on Fire's 'De Vermis Mysteriis'

Since emerging in the late Nineties from the ashes and smoke of stoner-doom kings Sleep, guitarist Matt Pike has been cutting a furious swath through the heavy music scene with his stoner-thrash trio High on Fire.

On the Oakland-based group’s sixth studio release, De Vermis Mysteriis, Pike not only flexes his capable, crushing guitar skills but also his ability to construct a seriously far-out concept. “I got this idea: What if Jesus had a twin who died at birth to give Jesus his life?” Pike says. “And then what if the twin became a time traveler?”

De Vermis Mysteriis excels both sonically (thanks in part to the production of Converge’s Kurt Ballou) and structurally, due to its smart sequencing that mirrors the arc of the traveler’s tumultuous journey (which follows a Quantum Leap–style narrative device, with the man’s spirit inhabiting different people’s bodies throughout history). The listener is dropped straight into the action with pummeling thrash (“Serums of Liao,” “Bloody Knuckles”), led through scorched-earth doom (“Madness of an Architect”), down to the depths of trippy instrumentals (“Samsara”), before snapping back with a few more head smashers (“Spiritual Rights,” “Romulus and Remus”).

Not surprisingly, stitching together the myriad riffs and cosmic concept required significant work for Pike and his bandmates, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel. “You’d think it’d be fun and games, but we really had to get down and dirty and think about things deeply,” Pike says. “I wanted to come strong but have people experience more than one emotion. I wanted a rollercoaster of sadness, anger and hope.”

This thoughtfulness also permeated Pike’s leads on tracks like “Fertile Green” and “Serums of Liao,” which abound with unchecked ferocity, double-tracked harmonies and off-the-wall choices. “I knew the patterns and measures and where I needed to end up,” he says. “But if it was in 4/4, I’d extend the solo a little farther to 5, and then hold something crazy and then end back on the 4. I love the tension that creates.”

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