High on Fire formed from the original split of legendary stoner doom outfit, Sleep. Matt Pike wanted to continue with a band in a similar fashion after the drama that ensued with trying to release an album as a single track; which London Records was not too keen on and it eventually (posthumously for the time) became Dopesmoker. Pike is the main man in the act accompanied for the most part by drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz.
High on Fire eventually established themselves as part of a new wave of American metal and the absolute live wire that was Relapse Records in the early 2000’s alongside bands like Mastodon, Converge, and Neurosis. They have been a very important band for 20 years and that seems to grow with each release. Here is our ranking of High On Fire’s discography.
8. Surrounded By Thieves (2002)
Being the lowest ranked High on Fire album is not a mark of disrespect to Surrounded By Thieves in any way, as a matter of fact “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered” was featured as part of a 7” split with Mastodon’s “March of the Fire Ants” and this was the first of three Relapse records releases that helped the band truly establish their foothold on metal to come for a long time.
This album marked a change in sound for the band and one that would continue to develop for during their three album stay with Relapse. Stripped away are the heavy Black Sabbath influences of Pike’s days with Sleep and the drumming of Des Kensel has a warlike sense about it, much different than that of Bill Ward and Chris Haikus. This is really the album that put High on Fire on the map.
Recommended Track: “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered”
7. The Art of Self-Defense (2000)
This very much still feels like a Sleep album and released on Man’s Ruin records, a label that had a penchant towards the end of its existence for housing plenty of doom metal bands that would eventually re-release material on Southern Lord, like Goatsnake for example. The Art of Self-Defense features some particularly Iommian riffing and a gritty, dirty production reminiscent of Sabbath’s Vol. 4.
There also reminders of where the band was heading with opener “Baghdad” being an intro to a slightly different guitar style and a hard introduction to Pike’s vocals which fit this style of music quite well; as if they were shouted through the annals of some kind of subterranean bar. This was the start of something big.
Recommended Track: “Last”
6. Electric Messiah (2018)
On their final album with founding drummer Des Kensel, High On Fire focused on honoring the titular Electric Messiah, Lemmy from Motorhead, who had passed away a few years prior and had served as a major influence for Pike. “Spewn From The Earth” was a massive explosion of an album opener, one that flows excellently into the first of two massive tracks within the first four songs. Tracks two and four “Steps of the Ziggurat / House of Enlil” and “Sanctioned Annihilation” mark a departure from the band’s more conventional song lengths, allowing for the band to further root themselves in your subconscious.
The title track is a furious headbanger, one that could almost feature the former Motorhead’s frontman on bass with the rocking and in-your face energy it provides. “The Pallid Mask” is another triumph with a slow start that eventually gives way to brooding, yet subdued guitar playing and excellent drums fills courtesy of Kensel. This strikes the chord of albums like Death Is This Communion and Blessed Black Wings many years later. Electric Messiah is solid album and the end of an era for High on Fire’s departing drummer.
Recommended Track: “The Pallid Mask”
5. De Vermis Mysteriis (2012)
High on Fire’s fifth foray was to be Pike’s first album recorded sober and marked a new age not just for himself, but in turn High on Fire as well. What resulted was a Lovecraft-influenced dirge into the depth in combination with the longstanding percussion of Des Kensel and Pike’s own pyrotechnics.
What the album lacked at times was the main crushing riffs of some of the band’s earlier and even later albums, but this was most certainly a High on Fire album as heard on “Fertile Green” and “Spiritual Rights.” The latter would fit on any album they would ever release and is one of the finest examples of what the band can deliver.
Recommended Track: “Spiritual Rights”
4. Snakes For The Divine (2010)
This album holds a special place for me being the first brand new release during my fandom of the band and it is often looked at as a very divisive album by fans, especially on the heels of a career defining album to boot. Snakes also marked the official departure from Relapse and a move to eOne where they still remain today. The title track is an epic, almost 9 minute attack and the album’s opening salvo with Jeff Matz’s bass very high in the mix.
One of the band’s most iconic tracks is also featured here in the form of “Frost Hammer” which has massive appeal to fans across the metal spectrum, with a main driving riff that pulls listeners in and won’t let them leave; for long time fans “Fire, Flood, and Plague” are the best places to whet their appetite.
Recommended Track: “Fire, Flood, and Plague”
3. Blessed Black Wings (2005)
Featuring perhaps the song that put the band on the map and certainly the first song of theirs that I had heard; “Devilution” tells newcomers to the band what High on Fire is all about; a statement that is still as true as when this was released 13 years ago. Distant drums open up this album and it eventually drives the weapon deep into the heart of enemies.
Truly one of the band’s deepest records, there are thing to like almost everywhere. “Cometh Down Hessian” is a perfect storm of riffs, bass pluck and absolute drumming madness. Truly an exceptional live track to see these physical specimens perform it live is surely a sight to behold. This was the album that opened people’s eyes and made them pay attention.
Recommended Track: “Cometh Down Hessian”
2. Luminiferous (2015)
Bands with the career trajectory on High on Fire’s don’t usually get to release career defining albums seven albums into the game, but longtime fans were in for a surprise with Luminiferous, a raucous testament to their now longstanding legacy. Evidenced by “The Black Pot,” everything seems to run at light speed, a place that isn’t where the band had buttered their proverbial bread in the past but they are willing to show that they can do so at any speed.
Catchy riffs abound on “The Falconist” and personal favorite “The Dark Side of the Compass,” the latter complete with a mind-melting guitar solo which shows off the sheer talents of Pike at his peak. This was a tough one to keep away from the number one spot on this list.
Recommended Track: “Dark Side of the Compass”
1. Death Is This Communion (2007)
High on Fire’s fourth album was their masterpiece and it was a tough call but many fans are undoubtedly familiar with tracks like “Fury Whip,” “Rumors of War” and “Turk” for starters. The stars aligned for this album which marked their final album with Relapse and what a high note! The battle was waged between Pike, Kensel and Matz with neither of the three giving ground to the other; a three-headed attack that is tough to top but each mesh so well within the confines of these 11 tracks.
Even one of the band’s shortest songs ever, “Rumors of War,” hits that perfect storm that “Devilution” did two years prior and fit HoF’s message into a small and easily digested package allowing fans into deeper listens like “Cyclopian Scape” and the title track. Their finest moment in a fantastic 20 year career so far. What will the future hold?
Recommended Track: “Turk“
This is a nice list, no doubt about it. As a huge High On Fire/Sleep fan myself I regard HOF as the band that was chosen by the Metal Gods of the Universe to carry the torch of Motorhead. Inasmuch as Matt Pike declared when “Electric Messiah” was first released that he had had a dream with Lemmy visiting him, it’s not that much of a stretch, but it’s a given when we consider Matt’s caustic vocals and the enormous power of Des Kensel on some of the heaviest drumming in all of rock and roll EVER and the brutal bass of Jeff Matz who managed to keep the two basic human thunderstorms grounded enough to make great music.
Now, Kensel has left, and he will be sorely missed. But since we have “Spitting Fire Vols. 1 and 2” and “Electric Messiah”, a new list of the best is in order just because. Not too drastic, I suppose, since there conceptually is no such thing as a bad or even “just good” High on Fire” album. Every one has the TNT capabilities of a full nuclear exchange and is not for wimps, Metallica fans post “Master Of Puppets” or anybody who thinks Guns and Roses still matter.
9. “The Art Of Self Defense” I agree this is more a Sleep album and it does tend to bog down here and there. It is important though as the musical bridge between Pike’s two outfits, and as such is still a fine album.
8) “Surrounded By Thieves” This is still a bit on the muddy side but the fury is about to go Krakatoa all over the place.
7) “De Vermis Mysteriis” Skipping ahead two albums, this one is the trippiest and lyrically weird. It is ultra heavy in true HOF style, but has a flow rather than blasts from song to song. Still a great album that gets plenty of play in my stereo.
6) “Spitting Fire Vol. I & II” This is two CD’s released separately of the band live in a club gig and it’s a wonder the building didn’t collapse in on itself. “Devilution”, “Rumors Of War”, “Frosthammer” and “Snakes For the Divine” are just the thing when you want your metal as brutal as possible in the finest Motorhead tradition.
5) “Snakes For The Divine” This is the “clean” HOF album that brought a much punchier and brighter tone to the album, and some fans were not happy about it. That wasn’t me you heard bitching. Pike’s guitar in particular is usually so thick and pummeling you can miss some of the gargantuan riffs but here he’s heard much easier. The title track and “Frost Hammer” are classics.
4) “Electric Messiah” Now it’s almost academic trying to pin HOF albums against one another. This album is probably the consummate HOF, and it just slams from start to finish.
3) “Blessed Black Wings” Ah, there it is. Everything from this pulverizing third album on set the HOF tone for the future. For those still digging the first two and their sludgy more stoner grooves, “Blessed Black Wings” was a titanic shot in the head. “Devilution” simply has to be one of, if not the heaviest HOF song, and the title track is right on its heels. Just a crushing masterpiece that escapes the usual tags of thrash, death, or anything else. This is rock and roll delivered with power only Motorhead in their glory years could only have passed on.
2) “Luminiferous” Kind of a sonic bridge between “Blessed Black Wings” fury and a bit of the psychedelia of “De Vermis Mysteriis”, this album from its opening salvos once again tells the listener to batten down the hatches, thar she blows, because the riffing here is enough to make a typhoon turn around and go the other way.
1) “Death Is This Communion” TA DA! EVERYTHING about High On Fire that makes them great, and absolutely not one wasted second in a fucking brilliant onslaught that lets in just enough air to create a couple spaces of slightly less abrasive music, that is until Des decides it’s time to roll again. For anybody who never heard this band or this amazing drummer, imagine Keith Moon having six arms instead of two during The Who’s “Live At Leeds” show, or the same with Phil “Philthy” Animal Taylor on Motorhead’s legendary “No Sleep ’til Hammersmith” triumph of a live album. “Tiamat”, “Rumors of War” and the title track will leave you comatose on the floor begging for assistance (“I’ve just had my musical ass thoroughly stomped and I can’t get up!”)
Here’s hoping the new drummer is good, and he’d have to be considering whose shoes he’s filling, but I certainly hope the best for him and Des Kensel, for whatever reasons he decided to leave, although I hope it was something not serious, like just wanting to work at home and be with family.