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High on Fire - Blessed Black Wings

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Artist: High on Fire

Album: Blessed Black Wings

Label: Relapse

Review date: Feb. 24, 2005

One of the more depressing musical trends of the last couple of years has been the spectacle of legions of wannabe hipsters, too nervous to rock out in earnest, falling over themselves to praise The Darkness. “They’re so kitschy, so retro, so metal!” Fuck that. If you want real rock, unencumbered by tiresome ironist and camp gestures, High on Fire will deliver, baby. This is power trio music at its most brutal, delivering an unrelenting hour of single-minded heaviness.

Like Surrounded by Thieves, their muddy-sounding and somewhat less satisfying predecessor, the Oakland-based group’s latest salvo fades in as if to suggest an approaching army of galloping horses. But if High on Fire is fond of some of metal’s most iconic imagery and gestures, don’t for a second think that they’ve got their tongues in cheek.

Many folks will be familiar with singer/guitarist Matt Pike from his days in Sleep. Joined by thudding drummer Des Kensel and, just in time for the Blessed Black Wings sessions at Steve Albini’s place in Chicago, the mighty Joe Preston on bass, Pike has finally delivered an album as powerful as Sleep’s Jerusalem, even if it’s different in almost every way. There’s a serious Mötörhead vibe on a lot of these tracks, most audible on the hard-charging opener “Devilution.” But you can hear a variety of old-school influences, including bands like Venom and Celtic Frost. Given these bands, it might not be surprising that Pike has a reputation as a master riffer. But his solos here sound miles better than anything I’ve heard from him before: they’re crisp and powerful, bluesy and pentatonic, and manic to the point that they always sound as if they’re going to spill over beyond the confines of the song. And while a lot of the music itself – not to mention titles and lyrical content – still reference the somewhat familiar trappings of the genre at its most classic (some titles include “Anointing of Seer,” “Sons of Thunder,” and – my favorite – “Cometh Down Hessian”!), this album represents a band that is supremely confident and aware of its own power.

The sound is huge, the horizon vast, and the momentum irresistible. Yet while the raw power and bludgeoning force is certainly what first compels about this one – and believe me, you cannot resist power riffs like the end of “Cometh Down Hessian” – what impresses over the long haul are the details and the growth of Pike’s composing skills. Listen to the unexpectedly regal acoustic riff spawned from the massive lumbering of “The Face of Oblivion” or the anthemic surge of the closing instrumental “Sons of Thunder.” As powerful and in-your-face heavy as anything you’re likely to hear this year, Blessed Black Wings is fucking authentic.

By Jason Bivins

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