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We’re releasing a special, limited to 300 swamp green vinyl edition of High on Fire’s Blessed Black Wings. Here, our metal columnist Andy O’Connor writes a Liner Notes essay about the album.
Have you ever heard a pick slide as monumental as High on Fire’s “Devilution?” It’s lightning bringing flesh to life; it’s beasts charging the Earth as if they were the rightful dominators and stewards they should be; it’s the apocalypse brought on by angels that all look like Eddie Van Halen with a death wish. Yes, you hear Des Kensel’s escalating drum barrage first, but Blessed Black Wings really starts when Matt Pike strikes that slide, bringing the same determination James Hetfield did when he slid on “Hit the Lights,” and Slayer’s slide on “Angel of Death” that ushered in Tom Araya’s primal yell. Pike is responsible for many of modern metal’s most memorable riffs, and yet that very pick slide alone sealed his stature as the 21st century’s guitar warlock. It’s a sonic detail that came to not kick off and define a new classic, but also signaled the true birth of High on Fire as a band and himself as a metal visionary.
High on Fire take from a lot of metal sounds on Blessed: Black Sabbath’s gargantuan tone, the Melvins’ sludgy punk (former Melvins bassist Joe Preston plays bass on here, his only one with them), Slayer’s crossover cacophony, and Motorhead’s grit. It embraces speed, Pike throwing weighty boulders like they’re ping pong balls. Pike’s versatility really begins to show here, taking on “To Cross The Bridge” and “Songs of Thunder,” longer tracks that recall thrash’s more grandiose leanings, as easily as more concise ragers like “Silver Back” and “Anointing of Seer.” He’s flighty and burly, a disciple of the solo who isn’t too concerned how precise it is. His lead in “Bridge” goes from epic thrash to a mash of notes in no time, balancing metal’s need for structure with its lust for chaos. There’s a constant war charge throughout, like if you spiked Lemmy’s Jack and Coke with a military budget and questionable pretenses, and no song emphasizes that like “Brother in the Wind.” Pike is able to clear his throat ever so slightly to go for a Maiden-esque elegy, mournful as it is triumphant. “Cometh Down Hessian” continues with that tone in its intro, then they opt to return to kill mode, their natural state.
Blessed makes one thing clear: High on Fire are not a stoner metal band. That association still sticks like resin from non-legal, non-gentrified weed because of Pike’s tenure in stoner doom legends Sleep, who dissolved following the trials of recording Dopesmoker, their single 63-minute procession initially released in a chopped up form as Jerusalem. (That’s a whole other story.) High on Fire are a fucking metal band, as elemental as Priest and Sabbath and Motorhead. “Stoner metal” doesn’t capture Pike going off the rails as a one-man Hanneman-King solo, it doesn’t capture the pure energy, it doesn’t capture its ascendance into the broader metal consciousness. Blessed is their third record, and in a sense it’s the first record where they dropped all the prefixes and all the bullshit. When Sleep broke up, he took the metal, and the remaining two-thirds of Sleep, bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius took the prolonged lengths and stoner attitudes. High on Fire’s debut, The Art of Self Defense, was Pike stumbling out of the smoke from Sleep’s initial demise, and Surrounded By Thieves showed the first signs of Pike embracing The Lemmy Within, though it was bogged down by Billy Anderson’s bass-heavy production. Pike was chopping through tar, and titan that he is, someone needed to set him free.
That came in the form of the engineer that would let him become the Valkyrie he was meant to be: Steve Albini. In Shellac, Albini conceived “Prayer To God,” the anthem of a vitriolic man praying that God kill his ex gracefully and her new partner with no mercy, a song that both works as an affirmation of love lost and a statement of male fragility, a song with divine repetition and godly power despite the fact Albini is an atheist. He was perfectly qualified to take on High on Fire; Pike shouting Lovecraftian tales would be a breeze. Albini has a reputation of being an asshole, when in reality his tolerance for bullshit could fit inside a roach’s colon. And that’s the dude High on Fire needed to bring the clarity they needed, not just in sound but in execution. Albini keeps them in the red, while brightening their sound to bring it out of the caves and into the theaters. And anyone who’s studied their Albini will always mention the drum sounds: Kensel is on the Bonham tip here, upfront and raw with full force. Blessed is one of Albini’s finest moment as much as it is the band’s. High on Fire have worked with other notable metal producers since, like Jack Endino and Kurt Ballou, but it’s Alibini’s touch that makes this a special part of their discography.
Metal was coming out of a bit of a slumber in the mid 2000s: it had never really gone away with a fertile death metal underground and European fests gaining prominence, but overall it hadn’t been in a huge force since the early ‘90s. Blessed came out when bands like Mastodon and Lamb of God were also beginning to hit their stride and finding not just their sounds, but bigger audiences. High on Fire benefited from that too: there was a hunger for heavier sounds that also sounded classic, and Blessed is the best of both worlds. High on Fire have kept their promise from the mid-decade “metal revival” — there isn’t a guitarist like Pike out there — and they’re as strong as ever. This was the record that turned Pike from “ex-Sleep guitarist” to the shirtless, sweaty, crooked-grinned icon, Les Paul seemingly permanently plugged in. And Blessed, moreover, gave metal its next great heroes. The pantheon was overdue for an expansion anyway.
Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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