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By Christian Schaeffer
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"I'm sorry if I sound retarded, dude," says Pike, calling from a tour van, en route from Wyoming to Montana. "I got really wasted last night. I don't even remember what I did last night after the show. I must have been running around wasted. At such a high altitude, you get wasted really easy."
A true child of the underground, he came of age in the '80s in San Francisco, where he saw Metallica and Black Flag play clubs. With his hair burning from inspiration, Pike learned to play guitar by dropping acid and practicing Slayer's screaming single-note fretboard workouts. Through the '90s, he lumbered around the land in Sleep, an obliteratingly loud stoner (rock) trio that — according to legend — burned a six-figure advance on weed and Orange amps to record "Jerusalem" (a.k.a. "Dopesmoker"), a single hourlong song that sounds like Black Sabbath on black tar.
The road through "Jerusalem" killed Sleep, and Pike next convened High on Fire. Working in a somewhat more conventional form, the band became instant cult heroes. In 2005, the crew made a short move from the backwaters toward the mainstream. The brutal — but crisp — Blessed Black Wings was recorded with Steve Albini, the producer/engineer whose distinguished résumé includes Nirvana and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Even Rolling Stone took notice of Pike, ranking him as one of the top twenty axemasters in a new generation of guitar heroes.
High on Fire's seismic fourth album, 2007's Death is This Communion, pushes the limits of what can be considered metal — but not by fusing it with another incongruous genre such as rap, and not by pushing the technical envelope of how fast it's possible to play. Rather, High on Fire are dragging metal into the future by regressing, going back through the primal sludge, and taking care of unfinished business in the Sabbath corner of the heavy-metal genome.
If stoner metal is the new thrash, High on Fire is the new Metallica — and Communion is its Master of Puppets, a mosh-pit tornado that whirls from lethal speed to poignant instrumental passages. "Fury Whip," the six-minute gut-grind which opens the new disc, sounds like Motörhead covering Slayer's "Seasons in the Abyss." Riding a rhythm that sounds like an oncoming pack of wraiths on horseback, Pike leads an onslaught, shouting "Death tax/Broken backs/Time has come to wield the axe." As James Hetfield once said, dying time is here.
Like Pike himself, Communion is a combination of blunt and sharp edges. Pike channels Motörhead's Lemmy through a deep acid-gargle, roaring battlefield refrains such as "Fury whip!" like an advancing warlord. But in tunes like the seven-minute trudge "Ethereal," he does it with an impressive depth and sustain that's suspiciously close to actual singing.
Capturing all that whoop-ass in a jug isn't easy. Budget constraints prevented High on Fire from working with Albini again; instead of spending money to travel to Chicago, they poured it into the disc. This time, they worked with another Nirvana producer: Seattle's Jack Endino, who recorded Bleach and early Soundgarden.
"This is a noisy band," explains Endino from his Seattle home. "There's a lot of distortion going on. It's dark. It's heavy. It's loud. And there's a lot of double kick-drum. It's very easy to have everything collapse into to a wash of white noise and rumble. It's an engineering challenge to keep the low end from running away, so it comes out of the speakers [with] a nice, powerful shape that whacks you in the chest."
Endino confirms that Pike's shirtless-dude-shredding-hard-and-partying-harder rep is a reality. But he also notes that Pike doesn't let the fifth quarter slow him down. Even hungover, the frontman would be the first one in the studio, ready to go, declaring, ''Yep, let's go to work.'"
Even with its hand-of-doom title, skull & bones artwork, and tunes to match, Communion isn't just a full-frontal assault. The instrumental "DII" opens with Skynyrd-style chugging, and Pike marches into a slow, lyrical riff. The dirge ends with the weeping sounds of strings. The bit began as a jam on a Hammond organ, but its final execution came via a mellotron — a keyboard-like machine that plays tape loops.
"It's just a really cool-sounding instrument," explains Pike. "The end of the piece, Des [Kensel, drums] dreamt this riff. And he was reciting it to me, and I was trying to understand what he was saying and put it down on guitar. And he's all 'Dude, I hear all these violins and shit.' And Jeff was all, 'The mellotron is a cool instrument for that.'"
As with most musical labels, "stoner rock," "stoner metal" and "sludge" are aren't quite a big enough umbrella to cover the spectrum of the music they describe — especially once keys and strings are in the mix. Pike doesn't care what you call the music. He just knows what it does for him.
"I just see it as an outpouring of our souls," says Pike. "That's how we have fun. That's how we get rid of demons. It's my job. But it's also my life. It's what I grew up doing. It's the only thing that truly expresses who I am."
7 p.m. Sunday, February 17. 2 Cents Plain, 1114 Olive Street. $15. 314-588-8400.