Coming off the back-to-back triumphs of The Art of Self-Defense and Surrounded by Thieves, High on Fire have returned with a landmark of heavy music, one that may end up going down as their definitive work. On Blessed Black Wings, High On Fire remain as ruthlessly heavy and unapologetically gloomy as ever, but their sound has somehow managed to become even bigger and better than before. This power trio (emphasis on the word "power") plays rampaging, roiling metal at its most primal and visceral, drawing influence from all the right places: Black Sabbath, Motorhead, and of course frontman Matt Pike's old band Sleep. For this, their third album, High On Fire have teamed with indie uber-producer Steve Albini, and the move has paid off and then some, resulting in a sound that's finally full enough to do justice to the band's epic, apocalyptic vision.
Behind the hell-hound vocals of Matt Pike, the band once again delivers a full-scale aural assault that's as vast as it is ferocious. Pike's strangulated guitar solos are pure freakin' insanity, Des Kensel's drum fills very neatly replicate the feeling of being hit upside the head, and Joe Preston's bass riffs are downright atomic. More importantly though, Blessed Black Wings sees a further refinement of High On Fire's already formidable songwriting abilities. While Pike & Co. most certainly haven't abandoned the pummeling sonic stomp that characterized their previous two albums, Blessed Black Wings is probably their least monolithic, most fully-developed effort to date. Rampaging tracks like the opening Devilution and Cometh Down Messiah see the band veering closer to thrash-metal territory than ever before, with Pike cranking out distorted speed riffs and sounding eerily similar to Lemmy Kilmister on vocals. The title track segues from an ominous, martial-sounding intro into a few moments of relative quiet, then launches into a groove heavy enough to level a mid-sized city. Similarly, To Cross the Bridge starts with a tense, acoustic-tinged passage before descending into a hellish vortex of tortured shouts and twisted guitar work. Its title notwithstanding, the closing instrumental Sons of Thunder is almost ambient (for these guys anyway), driven mainly by the hypnotic, repetitive thump of the rhythm section.
With this CD you also get a DVD feauring live renditions of five songs: Devilution, Speedwolf, Cometh Down Hessian, Brother in the Wind, and Nemesis. While the sound quality isn't that great, it is nice to see these guys replicating the intense fury of their studio sound in a live setting. If (like me) you can't see them live for whatever reason, this DVD treatment is probably the next best thing. In any case, Blessed Black Wings is the finest thing High On Fire have released so far, and all their albums are classics. And if you like these guys, be sure to pick up Sleep's Dopesmoker as well.