High on Fire – “Surrounded by Thieves”

dB HoF NO. 104

Surrounded by Thieves

Label: Relapse

Release date: 2002


Before High on Fire signed to Relapse, the Californians had plenty of buzz. The group’s debut, The Art of Self Defense, along with the cloyingly faddy label Man’s Ruin, sent waves of heshers yammering about the next big thing. Sleep had bit the dust, printing their demise in the history books. But High on Fire was something else. An underground phenom thrust from the molten core of the earth to riff, rock and, well, roll. There was no pretense, no image, no expectations. Just guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike, bassist George Rice and drummer Des Kensel wielding the Axe of Doom and powers of riff.

When Man’s Ruin felt the brutal pressure of a zeroed bank account, High on Fire were forced elsewhere. They didn’t have to beg. True warriors never do. Record labels cool and cooler stepped up to sign the future princes of heavy, thinking they’d get the logical successor to the raved-about Art of Self Defense. Well, after much campfire negotiations and rounds of trust, Relapse was selected as High on Fire’s stable for fiery steeds. But they didn’t get the follow-up they expected. They got more.

Honed in Northern California—more specifically Oakland’s corrupt yet beating heart, High on Fire’s new album, Surrounded by Thieves, was seismically different. No, they didn’t put Iommi riffs to regional Mexican rhythms, but the mindset had changed. Doom and all its trappings were, to a large degree, left behind. High on Fire had a new directive—admittedly stumbled upon, but no less important. Fueled by Kensel’s martially energized drum arts, Pike’s late 20s rage and Rice’s unabashed appreciation for classic heavy metal, High on Fire’s stride quickened. The power trio had found “the Gallop,” using it to crush enemies and rebder dude-bros speechless.

Recorded by Billy Anderson (Cathedral, Neurosis), Surrounded by Thieves was put to tape at a studio more renowned for Tom Waits, Carlos Santana and Huey Lewis than crushing metal of doom. Not posh, but certainly more outfitted and picturesque than where they had tracked The Art of Self Defense.

High in Fire brought the riffs and the kill ’em all attitude, Anderson the heft. Together, they guaranteed Surrounded by Thieves was going to rule. Moored by opener “Eyes and Teeth,” the uncompromising “Hung, Drawn and Quartered,” the fierceness of “Speedwolf” and eventual crowd favorite “Razor Hoof,” High on Fire’s second full-length was unlike anything before it. There was doom. There was death. There was nothing in between until Surrounded by Thieves. Of course, to prove they hadn’t lost anything, there was the intimidatingly good “The Yeti,” a slo-mo riff-fest crafted out of a late-night story about spectacular beasts and their arboreal kin.

Normally, the Hall’s doors are ceremoniously opened to welcome to the inductee: the creak of wrought iron, the bang of iron door locks slamming down. Much was planned. Many women were invited. Not this time. High on Fire were late for their induction, having turned left instead of right onto highway Bifröst. Everyone went home, the trumpets silenced, and the Hall’s storied doors closed for another day. High on Fire didn’t care. They axed through our sacred doors like rabid barbarians, set up a mini-keg, and partied with the night as their diamond-eyed dame. Welcome, High on Fire. It’s cool—we’ll get a new door.

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