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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.