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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.