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Blessed Black Wings is High On Fire in transition. Recorded by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, the band sounds cavernous, reaping the rewards of Albini's 'live-in-the-studio' sound. The guitars run hot and vicious, the rhythm section rumbling loose and strong. There's a sort of serrated sheets-of-sound feel, like all the instruments are colliding and rebounding, making for a unique and powerful sound. I know other people dislike the spaciousness Albini created here, feeling it takes away from the band's signature heaviness but I personally disagree, enjoying the throwback feel. But while the record sound great (especially when cranked), the songs themselves only intermittently deliver.
"Devilution" is a sweet opener, starting with some fade-in ominous drum hammerings before tapping a propulsive Motörhead vein. Following hot-on-the-heels is "The Face Of Oblivion," which slows into a dark jam Viking celebration. This track is catchy as fuck and delivers some immense head-nodding riffage and deep-bellied wails. "Brother In The Wind" is another head-nodder with a great solo but it pales in comparison to the next track. "Cometh Down Hessian" is a monster, easily the best track on the album. From it's quiet Orientalist strumming and clean-picking intro through its mammoth roar of cataclysmic riffs and bashing drums, this track delivers vital goods and makes several other tracks seem weak in comparison.
Unfortunately, this high point goes unmaintained as the following title track is a slow dreary slog of repetitive riffs. How many times does Matt Pike have to yell the chorus before we get the point? Way too many! "Silver Back" promises yet somehow fails to deliver the storm. And "Sons Of Thunder" is pleasant enough as an instrumental but doesn't offer any reason why it couldn't have been developed into a fuller song. Instrumentals need to be completely compelling to warrant inclusion and this one doesn't deliver. The only second-half highlight is "To Cross The Bridge," an insane epic with beautiful acoustic guitar passages giving way to another maelstrom of Motörhead-inspired dive-bombs. It sticks out like a sore-thumb among the lifelessly mediocre tunes that clutter this record's second side.
Indicating High On Fire's strengths while highlighting some glaringly obvious weaknesses, Blessed Black Wings sounds incomplete. Clearly the band is trying to break the cage of their stoner-sludge tag with some demonstrable songwriting heft that unfortunately doesn't deliver. It would take another record of exploratory reveling for High On Fire to get past this self-conscious transition phase as Death Is This Communion falls off an even deeper cliff. And while some killer gems remain tucked within, Blessed Black Wings is middling at best when compared to either of its predecessors or the killer records the band has more recently unleashed.
Being a fan of the doom metal genre and its seemingly unrelated children in fuzzed out stoner doom and misanthropic, misery drenched sludge doom, High on Fire is a band I got into. Matt Pike's former band in Sleep was one I always enjoyed listening to, and I'll inject a cliché nod to that band's best work in "Sleep's Holy Mountain." To me, Sleep stood alongside Kyuss as one of those stoner bands of the early 90's (when the style was being pioneered) who managed to maintain focus and didn't cause the audience to lose interest by engaging in overlong atmospheric nonsense.
High on Fire was a band I didn't learn much about until I heard this album, their third overall, called "Blessed Black Wings." Found within its gritty production standards, and Matt Pike's apparent fascination with "what would Lemmy do?" in terms of vocals is a unique listen. "Blessed Black Wings" finds itself in an interesting niche of different styles, ranging from the more noticable stoner/sludge doom to the less obvious thrash tendencies. No one will ever hear Slayer in High on Fire's music, but I can detect a few influences here and there. The majority of this album, however, is still something that the stoner/sludge crowd will find interesting.
Anyone familiar with the stoner metal and sludge metal genres had ought to know that the sound quality isn't going to be crystal clear. For these genres, that is usually the best thing as that dirty and gritty sound is what gives those two their dense quality, often referred to as "a wall of sound." Yet High of Fire don't lose themselves in creating atmosphere, which is something I could say about sludge stalwarts in Eyehategod and the various bands who emulate them. In fact, I feel that this album (produced by Steve Albini,) finds a comfortable niche between the two worlds of more accessible music and the often unsettling vibe those bands often carry. In other words, the music is dense and gritty, but not the point that the listener can't fully immerse themselves in the album.
The songs themselves usually stick to the mid-tempo formula, which is where the majority of stoner and sludge bands reside. The thrash references I made earlier come out in the opener "Devilution." I wouldn't get too comfortable with what you hear on that song, as those speed influences taper off after that song. "The Face of Oblivion" is more akin to what you'll hear for the majority of this album: dirty, fuzzy stoner metal at mid-tempo with vocals that sound like a tribute to Lemmy Kilmister. "Brothers in the Wind" attempts to build an epic quality to it, something High on Fire has tried a few times in their career. They aren't exactly good at making those epic songs, but they aren't nearly as bad as some I've heard. For the most part, songs like "Brothers in the Wind" are good, but not epic.
After the somewhat unimpressive "Cometh Down Hessian" is the title track, and one of my favorites here. This song just seems to work, from the personalized lyrics about addiction struggles to the powerful riffage and thunderous drums. "Blessed Black Wings" is definitely the best song off of this album, and I'd argue one of the best this band has recorded. None of the remaining songs really stood out to me, except maybe "To Cross the Bridge" with its folksy influences or perhaps the well written instrumental closer in "Sons of Thunder." Both of these are fairly memorable, particularly "Sons of Thunder" for its changes between its serene beginning to its more raging sections thereafter.
Unlike some audiences out there who have come across High on Fire, I have found them to be an enjoyable outfit. It shows that Matt Pike is still loyal to the stoner/sludge genre but isn't going to rip-off his old band to make music. Some have criticized the band for "not being like Sleep," but I'd argue you wouldn't want them to be. All good bands find their own niche, regardless of who or who isn't among their line-up. High on Fire seem to found something on this album that is uniquely theirs, even if some of their characteristics also belong to other groups as well. "Blessed Black Wings" isn't a perfect album by any means, but its definitely a good one. It has its flaws, but I have a hard time finding an album that is as loyal to the stoner/sludge hybrid but maintains this level of quality. Definitely something fans of that hybrid, or the individual genres should be looking into.
Remind me not to smoke what the last reviewer was smoking, because I totally disagree with his assessment of this album. This album reminds me of what would maybe happen if Black Sabbath and Motorhead had a baby and Iggy Pop carried it to term, with the mighty Steve Albini overseeing the birth of this ugly, fuzzy hellchild. And a potent wallop to the head it is, too.
If the production had been immaculate, the feel would've been totally destroyed, as this to me sounds perfect for what HOF are doing. The dismal, cavernous sound lends an undeniable feeling of impending doom to the proceedings, very Lovecraftian, almost. The drums sound as though there is a real person playing them, and not just playing them but whaling a ton of shit out of them to boot. No triggers, just a powerful ambient drum sound that has just enough air and oomph to really connect hard with the listener. The bass merges with the guitar into a formidable wall of sound that threatens to forcibly tear your head off and stick it somewhere it really doesn't belong. And alongside the guitars as opposed to flying over them, Matt Pike's ugly, glass-gargling growl a la Lemmy sit in their own little niche in the mix, making it sound like a unit more than anything else.
This is far from the boring drones I associate with doom/stoner bands, musically--HOF are far more exciting and energetic. This is not some bunch of stupid hippies overdoing the bong hits and then trying to play their music, this is the sound of rabid and fierce players taking their art seriously and injecting it with passion and aggression.
For example, opening track, "Devilution", takes off from the starting gate like a throughbred horse being given its head and its fiendish roar is like Motorhead in their prime. Then we are treated to the deliciously dissonant opening riffs of "The Face of Oblivion", a Lovecraft-inspired piece lyrically that conveys the haunted and terrifying feel of that writer's classic fiction set to a tribal/marching beat that will make you move and bang and sweat. Pike's vocals are especially good on this one and he lets out some hair-raising screams. The middle section of that tune is especially powerful and features one of the best solos on the album--Pike is on top of his game here and rips with confidence. "Brother in the Wind" is slower and heavier, but still not crawling or boring yet. Other tunes to look forward to here are the irate "Cometh Down Hessian", the moody "Silver Back", and ending instrumental "Sons of Thunder", which has a vaguely Celtic feel to its rollicking drum beats and ends the album on a relatively upbeat note. The title track has a really dismal feel to it, with a thundering singalong chorus that I'm sure goes down a storm live.
This is a worthy release from HOF, and while I'm sure their other albums are good too, I especially like this one so far. Go ahead and give these guys your money and help them not have to work shitty day jobs!
Argh! What happened!?
I usually try to restrain from reviewing albums by contrasting them against other work by the band, and, admittedly, I usually fail. I certainly cannot resist with High On Fire, because everything that worked so beautifully with Surrounded By Thieves has just slapped their thighs resignedly, got up, and walked-off into the fading sunset. If sound could do that anyway.
Everything I can possibly think of on Blessed Black Wings is inferior to Surrounded By Thieves; the riffs, the vocals, the drumming, the lyrics, the song-titles, the artwork, the production. Surrounded By Thieves had an undeniable force propelling it through every nuance of sound and theme, and this album by comparison falls flat.
Where to start... Okay, the sound. We're treated to something similar; raw, abrasive and slightly muddy. A fuzzed-out wall of warm sound born from a bong and punctuated by hollow, acoustic drumming. It works, but it lacks a convincing low end; the riffing glides along above the musical ground. These guys are meant to be stoners, I want the sound to be dragging a fat low end and leaving furrows in the wake. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, and the riffing itself doesn't make amends. The guitar style is identical to previous releases, so the approach on paper should be great...unfortunately to these ears, the riffs just don't have the same power as on Surrounded By Thieves. The overall atmosphere isn't as arcane or mysterious; there is the feeling that High On Fire might have been attempting a more direct, balls-to-the-wall metallic feel and if that is so, they have succeeded admirably. Unluckily for them, the dark melodicism of their old riffing was an important atmospheric facet, and Blessed Black Wings sounds emasculated for the more aggressive approach.
Again, the drums are basically doing the same thing as before; trade-offs between basic rhythm and Brann Dailor-esque round-the-kit filling, albeit measurably slower. All in all, it is a rhythm section designed to drone; to retain the doom roots that they have otherwise entirely left behind. They succeed, and fail. While the droning-yet-pacey drums hit the right note on Surrounded By Thieves, they drone here in a samey fashion without the support of interesting riffing to fill-out the sound. Furthermore, because of the more direct approach, we have less dynamics, and more opportunity to get bored with the same continuous pace.
What the hell happened to the vocals as well? Did Matt Pike suffer trauma to his diaphragm? Where have his gruff, unassuming stoner vocals gone? Blessed Black Wings sees him trying to mix it up a bit in that department, and, ironically, becoming a little more annoying in the process. For example, on this album, he actually tries to hit notes on some of the songs. He fails. Sounding like a pubescent teenager in the process. Oh mercy. Why not just announce a jihad on the memory of Sleep and finish this musical decay into irrelevance? To drive a further nail into that coffin, this album's lyrics focus a little more on repitition. The title track and Devilution for example batter us with those words repeated ad infinitum. I don't know about other fans of stoner rock and doom, but one of the refreshing things about their lyrics was that, typically, we aren't subjected to moronic repetitions of single words or phrases in a rapid-fire, lunk-headed, hardcorish fashion. Slowly repeated whole choruses and verses of tripped-out imagery and spiritualism, yes, BLESSED. BLACK. WINGS. BLESSED. BLACK. WINGS. BLESSED. BLACK. WINGS. x 5, I think not.
For those unfamiliar with High On Fire, I believe I can aptly describe this album's sound with yet another comparison. Imagine Mastodon without any melody, atmosphere, progression or defined riffs, and you have Blessed Black Wings. It sounds quite underwhelming on paper, and at the end of the day, unless you're ripped on real mellow skunk, it sounds just as underwhelming coming out of the speakers.
This isn't stoner rock anymore, and certainly not stoner doom. Seek-out Surrounded By Thieves, that is actually a great album, this one being little more than a lacklustre mimicry of it.
There’s a phrase I like to use in my reviews. Maybe you’ve noticed it yourself (that’s assuming anyone actually takes time to read my rants). It’s not a phrase I use on a continual basis, but rather it is saved for particular albums that are truly worthy of the tag. That phrase is something I like to call ‘upping the ante’. It is a description that fits a band that, whilst always demonstrating tremendous promise within a flawed blueprint, finally makes good and delivers their ‘piece de-resistance’. Oakland’s ‘High on Fire’ are one such band.
Two and a half years have passed since the excellent ‘Surrounded by Thieves’ and with a shit load of touring under their belt and a natural progression and maturation in their songwriting High On Fire are on the cusp of becoming serious major players. I’ve always had a bit of time for this band but to be quite honest, I wasn’t expecting such a massive step up in quality. With expectations exceeded, ‘Blessed Black Wings’ has simply floored me. You want evidence of a band upping the ante? This is it folks - A molten, hard as nails metal beast that oozes energy and passion from every pore of its sweaty carcass.
So why is BBW the best thing HOF has ever done? Well, aside from the natural maturation mentioned earlier, notwithstanding the inclusion of bassist Joe Preston (The Melvins) to the band (replacing George Rice), the addition of one Steve Albini to the production duties was always going to make this an album worth hearing. The sound of this album is incredible. Oh, it still totally representative of the usual High on Fire ethic, but on a much fuller scale. Everything about this bands music has been amplified and tweaked to another level (or two). The song writing is stronger, the musicianship is more manic, the solos more wicked. If they were dangerous before, ‘BBW’ now gives rise to a band that is just about certifiable such is its impact.
The other (and probably most impressive) aspect about BBW’ is that via Albini’s awesome production, High on Fire have become a more ‘metallic’ sounding band. The sloppy sludgy Motorhead meets Slayer influence is still very much a given - however with a darker and undoubtedly more aggressive, go-for-the-throat pacing throughout, High on Fire are a much heavier proposition. Everything about BBW is just so much more hard-hitting and involved than ever before. Add the raw forceful vocal from Matt Pike (whose resemblance to a pissed off Wino (doom god from The Obsessed) on speed meets Lemmy) and ‘BBW’s’ quite gritty and thunderous appeal is perfectly sealed.
With a clutch of superbly written (and quite diverse) set of tracks, High on Fire has delivered a killer disc. It seriously rips with ferocious abandon. A more powerful and musically captivating album you might not hear again this year. There’s a long way to go, but at this point in time I’m putting this at the top of the pack. Upping the fucking ante indeed, it’ll take on all comers.
Krozza: written for www.pyromusic.net and walls of fire
The mastermind behind the rather controversial Sleep returns with yet another slab of doom-fury with "Blessed Black Wings" that brings the band yet another step closer to it's artistic potential. Producer Steve Albini finally gives the band the heavy mix they've needed. The vocals and guitars are finally mixed correctly, the drums circle and pound like a war party and the overall tone is one of untamed aggression. The band is inching ever so close to greatness...and this is almost (key word) as good as it gets.
The key tracks on "Blessed Black Wings" include the pummeling title track, the moody-as-all-hell "The Face of Oblivion" and the drum-heavy opener "Devilution". The rest of the material isn't as openly memorable as the above listed cuts but it all serves a strong apocalyptic vision that rumbles and quakes like the bowles of hell tearing up from the earth. Unlike most doom...this has balls of iron and DOESN'T sound like a hippy love-in.
High on Fire have a choice to become the kings of the business now or to slide into making records that lock them into a set time and place. Thankfully, the band is cooking up a hell's brew that could lead them to the promised land of metal immortality and hopefully they'll take the next step up the ladder.
Until then...listen to this broiling mess of guitars, screams and drums and party like it's the end of the world...
Buy or die!!!
This release is highly recommended for you stoner enthusiasts out there. A serious step in the right direction for this band. Everything thats good about Surrounded by Thieves is present here, and a lot more as well. This album plays a lot faster than their previous material, in fact sometimes you wont be able to tell its HoF at all... you might think its Slayer. The thrash factor is off the charts on this release, and thats definitely a good thing. The thunder drumming is spot on and Pike's guitar playing shreds the eardrums. This is a sonic assault if I've ever heard one. For fans of Sabbath-inspired sludge, look no further than High on Fire for the saviors of the genre. As a fan of Pike's earlier band, Sleep, I was hoping to hear something similar on this release... but what i got was completely different, and thats the best news yet. HoF is just getting started I think... There should be many more quality releases coming after this. Mastodon might be the big name when it comes to this style, but for my money no one does it better than HoF. And if you think I'm kidding, just listen to the instrumental track at the end of the album... mind blowing!
High on Fire has always brought the heavy and leaves nothing behind. Their new album, 'Blessed Black Wings' is a behemoth of an album. It has the same stuff high on fire always provides, but it's also, much different.
To begin with, we must take note on the albums production. The two previous albums were both pretty low end, and 'Surrounded by Thieves' was simply too muddy. Steve Albini's engineering mastermind allows each instrument to be heard on its own, yet still blends everything together, just much better than past efforts. You still get the low end and plenty of heavy, but the production is a bit cleaner this time around.
The music itself is definitely something I have been waiting for since their last album. Pike's musical ability displays exactly what you'd expect from the last two albums and then introduces newer angles of his musical repertoire, but never call his work mature. The opening track, Devilution, starts off how surrounded by thieves ended, an epic tribal rhythm provided by Des. The song eventually becomes fast and thrashy. The album takes a turn during the second track. When I expected the songs to get heavier, the second song slows down a bit and provides some melody. These two songs exemplify exactly what the entire album has too off. Pike definitely does not change anything about the band, but he does put some new twists. One thing which makes this album more epic is the intensity of the riffs. This album is definitely more metal than anything we've heard from the band thus far. Song's like Anointing of Seer and Cometh Down Hessian definitely exemplify the old school thrash of Motorhead combined with the brand-new school of heavy. The album ends with an instrumental, Sons of Thunder, an apt title for the song. It provides more melody and pounding drums. Overall this album is more melodic, but still just as heavy as anything you'd heard before. High on Fire definitely is the epitome of heavy and this album does a good job proving the disbelievers wrong.