High on Fire Blessed Black Wings

[Relapse; 2005]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: heavy metal, classic metal
Others: Black Sabbath, Slayer, Mötorhead, Early Man, Iron Maiden

Wilco's "Heavy Metal Drummer" aptly glosses its titular genre: it portrays metal as a fenced-in outlet for low stakes youthful indiscretions, to one day be looked back upon with a beaming smile from an adult safe haven of O'Rourkian creature comforts. Now that heavy metal's had over three decades to corrupt the minds of American youth, it's become abundantly clear that its subversive qualities often provide impetus for little more than awaking a downstairs neighbor or partaking in a dormroom doobie. That's because the genre's taste for the grotesque, the epic, and the X-treme reveals itself with the subtlety of Lemmy's howl, allowing the listener to easily derail any potentially dangerous elements by engaging them as cartoons, metaphors, or parodies.

High on Fire's Matt Pike seems acutely aware of metal's role in our society. In his earlier project, Sleep, Pike attempted to push metal's boundaries by churning out some of the burliest psychedelia this side of Hawkwind, but even that material failed to transcend the look-back-and-laugh-when-we're-older tag; when he titled Sleep's definitive album Dopesmoker, he as much as guaranteed that no one would be able to take the band straight (in both senses). With High on Fire, Pike has steadily come to embrace convention, and in doing so has breathed more life into metal than many experimentalists.

Blessed Black Wings steeps itself in tradition, even more so than the band's previous albums — these songs teem with hulking Sabbath riffs, shards of mid-'80s thrash, and the occasional flaying gee-tar solo. Pike's lyrics, in particular, demonstrate an awareness of generic norms; they're full of mythic imagery, medieval violence, and impending demise. Whereas this sort of language usually presents an epic narrative for metal to augment with loudness and bombast, Pike uses these words as a mere backdrop, threading ghosts, asylums, and corpses together into a plotless pastiche, much like Guitar Wolf do with rock 'n' roll clichés. And like everyone's favorite Japanese garage band, High on Fire allow their empty lyrics to serve as a negation of language that elevates/reduces their art to sonic absolutism. They blatantly treat lyrics as a formality, precluding any possibility of substantial verbal communication and placing all emphasis on their rock prowess.

And good Lawdy, what prowess it is! Steve Albini's engineering buttresses the musicians perfectly, bringing ex-Melvin Joe Preston's bass to a Jesus Lizard-y earthquake and smearing Pike's guitar leads in hazy burnt sienna. The album's more than a mess of hulking tones, though, as High on Fire take full advantage of the formal liberties available to them as traditional metallurgists. The album divides its time between hooky trainwrecks a la early Slayer and multi-faceted sprawls in the tradition of Iron Maiden's prog-flavored epics. In both cases, the songwriting's stellar. Even the more accessible tracks operate with their own wild logic: "Brother in the Wind" nails the sort of perpetually catchy menace that Queens of the Stone Age always shoot for, while "Silver Back" veers towards warbly acid rock. Even as the center holds true throughout each track, every new movement offers a surprising contortion, striking a formidable balance between brains and brawn.

The only lapse into tedium occurs when "The Face of Oblivion" ventures out onto a rocky crag of unaccompanied, eloquent guitar. Here, the band show their only hints of self-seriousness, and falter because they have little to offer in this Tolkein-esque mode. This slip only serves to remind us why Blessed Black Wings might be the most vital heavy metal recording in quite some time, however, as it recalls both the straight-faced and tongue-in-cheek stabs at myth-building that relegate most metal to the realm of immaturity. It reminds us of exactly what the album isn't. And most of the time, High on Fire whip up obliterating, full-bearded shitstorms that minimize the chances of your girlfriend leaving you for their drummer.

1. Devilution
2. The Face of Oblivion
3. Brother in the Wind
4. Cometh Down Hessian
5. Blessed Black Wings
6. Anointing of Seer
7. To Cross the Bridge
8. Silver Back
9. Sons of Thunder

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