WHEN DID HIGH ON FIRE GET SO BIG?
In a recent editorial on Invisible Oranges, Cosmo Lee (and yes, it was actually Cosmo who wrote this one… I triple-checked!) used the recent success of High on Fire as a case study to discuss why metal fans hate it when their favorite bands become successful. Cosmo posits three theories and they’re all on point (as usual), but I’ll let you check out Invisible Oranges for that because that’s not really what I’d like to discuss today. I’d like to explore when the fuck High on Fire suddenly became such a big deal.
I’ve never been a huge High on Fire fan, but I haven’t got anything against the band. To me they’ve always been a sweet bonus, that band that’s opening on tour with a bigger, cooler band — “Ah, nice, High on Fire’s on that tour… cool, we get to see Matt Pike rock the fuck out with his shirt off!” — but they didn’t really warrant much attention individually. No doubt, the band has a rich history (hi Sleep) and had a core of die-hard fans, but by and large they lived in the underground. They were always that band that were either a) supporting a bigger band, or b) playing in small, cramped sweaty bars.
There’s a ton of hype around their new album Snakes for the Divine which had a HUGE first week with almost 9k copies sold but, by and large, isn’t all that different from their past work. All of a sudden they’re on the cover of Decibel right out of the gate, with a snake-adorned Matt Pike wearing more makeup than a 50 year-old stripper. And they’re on their own headlining tour of decent-sized legit venues, selling them out across the country. Make no mistake about it; like Cosmo points out, High on Fire are a big band now. They’re in the mainstream metal consciousness.
So when did this sudden transformation happen?
To be sure, nothing is odd about about a band graduating from support slots and sweaty bar headliners to the big leagues. That’s what’s supposed to happen, isn’t it? What’s odd is that it happened so fucking quickly. High on Fire went from from 0 to 60 from the end of one album cycle to the beginning of the next, and they seemingly skipped a step. Take the recent example of Machine Head (the specifics aren’t a perfect analog, but it works for my example): in Machine Head you had a band who had squandered their legacy with a string of shitty, trend-following albums in the late ’90s. Through the Ashes of Empires started their ressurection, and three years later The Blackening continued it; but even through the early part of The Blackening album cycle Machine Head still had to work to earn fans by doing support slots on every tour imaginable, taking every press op, and just grinding it out the old fashioned way. Now, three years later, Machine Head are in what I think we can say are the metal big leagues. Their next release will have the entire metal world’s eyes fixed upon it. What I’m getting at here is that High on Fire skipped that middle step where you dabble in the mainstream and get acquainted with it / it gets acquainted with you… they just went from underground to mainstream in no time.
So what happened with High on Fire that made their situation different?
The single difference you can really point to is that they’re on a new record label. High on Fire signed with Koch (now E1) in 2008, and E1 — though independent — operates like a major label. Independent smaller labels like Relapse (the band’s former home) nurture underground bands and take things one step at a time, letting them grow organically and letting a fanbase build naturally. Bigger labels live and die by spending money to generate hype: E1 basically said “THE NEW HIGH ON FIRE! HOLY SHIT! IT’S COMING! BE EXCITED!!” in so many ways via big ads, triumphant press releases and generally feeding the appetite of the hype machine. Sometimes this works, but usually it doesn’t: look at the miserable flops that were their recent Arkeaea release (“HOLY SHIT! DUDES FROM FEAR FACTORY!”) and Burning Human (“HOLY SHIT! A DUDE FROM SHADOWS FALL!”). The difference is that with High on Fire, Relapse had already done all the dirty work and built a fanbase and reputation for the band (not to mention Matt Pike’s history with Sleep), so by the time E1 smartly snatched them up all the hype fell on receptive ears. But let’s give credit where it’s due; E1’s done a fine, fine job of marketing this release. Another label could’ve simply sat back and let things continue on their natural progression, but E1 put in that extra push and it’s paid off handsomely. Suddenly, High on Fire are in the big leagues. Not that Relapse couldn’t have or wouldn’t have done that had the band re-signed with them; but there’s no way of knowing.
So look at that… the marketing muscle of record labels can still be worth something after all. Welcome to the Bigs, High on Fire. Of course, the back side of being a beneficiary of the hype machine is that you can fall as quickly as you rose; we’ll see whether or not High on Fire can become an ace of the pitching staff or if they’ll just stay up for a cup of coffee.
Photo credit: Travis Shinn