Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

High on Fire -- Blessed Black Wings
Relapse; 2005

It's a real shame what passes for metal these days. Modern rock radio will have you believing that crying about your parents and that girl that got away is standard metal fare, so long as it's punctuated by "pained" screams and supposedly heavy melodies. High On Fire will have none of that. Fronted by Matt Pike, ex-singer and guitarist for doom metal pioneers Sleep, the power trio is probably more comfortable with their music scoring scenes of Vikings tearing apart villages than FOX's new teen drama. Blessed Black Wings falls in line with that attitude as well, and is just as uncompromisingly brutal as their past two efforts.

For the uninitiated, the music of High on Fire might be a bit intimidating. It's built around the repetition of guitar and bass riffs thicker than a woolly mammoth and as sludgy as the rankest bog. Combined with drumming that might as well be an army galloping into battle, the group's monstrous sound is a rude awakening for those that dare classify Linkin Park as heavy. But intimidating does not mean inaccessible, as the nine songs of Blessed Black Wings are laden with devilishly pleasing arrangements. Pike's slashing guitar work paints dark and foreboding mental pictures with thunderclap drums keeping pace. Wading through the muck of tracks like "Devilution" proves fruitful when pummeling melodies reveal themselves and capture listeners' attention.

One element that might prove difficult for casual listeners of metal to get past is High on Fire's vocals. Like a barbarian that's swallowed hot coals (or Lemmy from Motorhead), Pike's voice is coarse and used to scream battle cries about demons and dragons. When he actually sings, his harshly-fashioned voice fits into the bludgeoning mess perfectly; because honestly, who wants a pretty boy's voice floating over a quagmire of doom metal?

Blessed Black Wings is a small step up for High on Fire, primarily because of its slightly polished production. Given that he's known for recording groups in a way that minimizes the guitar and maximizes the drums, famed producer Steve Albini was taken to task with recording the group. Pike's guitar tone is still wonderfully distorted and loud as all hell, and the bass is still basically indistinguishable (it's really just there to fatten the group's already massive sound); but there's a bit more space in Blessed Black Wings where Surrounded By Thieves was a claustrophobic's nightmare. The trio's sonic assault is still dirty and imposing, but Albini's production cleans things up a bit like only a mother's spit can (how does he do it?).

Played loud and proud, Blessed Black Wings was exactly the right record for High on Fire to make. While it moved a little away from the stoner territory towards dooming pastures, Pike and Co.'s ferocious riffs and stampede drums still hit all the sweet spots that make me throw up the horns. Albini's famed knobbed twiddling is a plus as well, as the finished results are less choked by pot smoke and acutely fierce. This is not the metal brought to you by baggy pants and teenage angst; no, this is metal that kicks ass, takes names, and then uses them as unholy rolling papers. Frankly, I'd have it no other way.

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