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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.