Blessed Black Wings – High on Fire (Metal Monday)

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Band: High on Fire

Origin: Oakland, CA

Year: 2005

Label: Relapse


This rocks.

I considered leaving it at that. Blessed Black Wings is a terrific album. Every song is catchy as hell, recorded to give the sludge a rich and visceral texture, and full of simple, sweaty fun. This is metal that commands you to let go of your inhibitions and enjoy the ride.

Having risen from the ashes of stoner metal legends Sleep at the turn of the century, guitarist Matt Pike took one look at his surroundings and decided he was not done rocking out. He had only just begun. Where Sleep once seemed to seek enlightenment through the intersecting mystical forces of metal and weed, High on Fire sound like they’ve recovered from the trip and are ready to burn everything down.

“Devilution” is a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners beatdown of a song. Pike seethes something about “Bablyon” and “rising war god” and “spewing hellfire,” before shouting out the one-word chorus like a man with his feet held to the fire. It’s a tremendous performance, even if Pike’s guitar playing lapses into the same down-tuned power chords throughout the rest of the album.

Beginning with a sludgy march, “The Face of Oblivion” returns to some of the zen shredding that defined much of Pike’s guitar work in Sleep. It is both an energizing and mesmerizing performance, and once the guitar, drums and bass guitar unite to bring the song home it transcends the confines of stoner metal to reach near-classical levels of devotion.

“Brother in the Wind” is a crash course in how to make sludge metal melodic and emotional. Pike’s voice breaks and falters and falls out of key perfectly. Matt Pike’s singing might be a sticking point for some. His husky growl is a purposefully untrained tool, every blemished yowl and harsh croon seems to bellow from somewhere beyond the tune of the song. In many ways Pike is an utterly emotional singer, choosing authenticity over virtuosity at every turn.

There are strong suggestions of Slayer in the title track, but High on Fire doesn’t go in for the same kind of technical performativity as those thrash legends. That’s really the distinction that Pike seems to want to make with his music. Metal for High on Fire is as much about feel and brute emotion as it is about what is being performed. There are plenty of live videos of the band available that show Pike is often a sloppy performer (this is especially true of performances recorded before he began to attempt sobriety), but their is a raw magnitude to his presence that is almost certainly not captured on video.

“To Cross the Bridge” might be my least favorite track on the album. It mostly grinds along at the same pace, and trends towards monotony over the course of its nearly seven-and-a-half minute runtime, although it does have a gnarly guitar solo at the end. If anything, it just comes across as too similar to the lesser attempts of Matt Pike’s imitators among the stoner metal rabble. That guitar solo is pretty damn solid, though.

The energy returns with “Silver Back” which, after a brief buildup, shreds at absolutely breakneck speeds. It’s an absolute banger, taking the ethos of hardcore punk and imbuing it with the blood, sweat and tears of metal. Whiskey punk might be an appropriate term.

“Songs of Thunder” brings things home with a fine instrumental track. Each of these players is talented in their own right, and it’s a little unfair of me to treat this as Matt Pike’s effort alone. Hopefully I will be returning to High on Fire again, as they’ve produced plenty of great material across their career.

Before I go I should mention that Steve Albini (guitarist of Big Black, producer of everything) engineered this record, and his trademark recording style of “get as close to a raw live sound as possible” gives the band a supple muscularity and puts the listener neck-deep in the sludge. This is another name that may come up again if I keep up with these articles. Given that I’ve been doing this for nearly a month straight, I’m convinced that will indeed happen.

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