Surrounded By Thieves, the second album by Bay Area thrashers High on Fire, was an extremely well received record in 2002, becoming not only a quick favorite in metal circles, but a bit of an indie rock critics’ darling as well. It’s not every day that a band who specializes in the same kind of monolithic, dense sludge metal as Entombed and Eyehategod is able to connect with two such disparate, but equally discerning crowds, but the band pulled it off, and through some relentless touring, were able to forge a fanbase across America big enough to make their next album one of the most hotly anticipated follow-ups in years. The production on Surrounded By Thieves was pure sludge in the classic sense, the murky guitars of leader Matt Pike and the guttural basslines of George Rice creating a thick wall of noise, as Des Kensel’s drumming was presented prominently in the mix, rivaling Dave Lombardo’s drum sound on Slayer’s classic South of Heaven. The fact that the trio decided to head into the studio with ace producer Steve Albini was cause for debate; after all, what would Albini, the man behind the classic, thunderous, abrasive sounds of Big Black, Surfer Rosa, and In Utero, do to the thick, suffocating High on Fire sound?
The answer? Well, simply, Albini has dramatically increased the intensity on all fronts, or, as the oft-paraphrased Nigel Tufnel would put it, it’s one louder. Blessed Black Wings might not be very different as far as the songwriting goes, but damn, if the overall sound doesn’t just blow the previous album away like dry leaves in autumn. Sludge and stoner rock aficionados might have a bone or two to pick with the more listener-friendly production, but Wolverine Blues this is not,. As Albini showed on Neurosis’s 2004 album The Eye of Every Storm, when he does metal, he does it his way, and to his credit, it always sounds great. This record is no exception.
Much has been made of the band’s “Motorhead meets Slayer!” sound, and although the phrase has been used in nearly every article ever written about them by lazy writers and critics (present company included), the comparison could not be more accurate. Like the venerable Motorhead, Pike delivers a wracked growl that sounds eerily close to that of Mr. Kilminster’s, his riffs and new bassist (and former Melvin) Joe Preston’s basslines are deceivingly simple, and Kensel’s drumming, especially on the fast numbers, greatly resembles the amphetamine-addled speed of Phil Taylor. However, the dark tones of Slayer serves as a counterbalance, as time signature shifts come in from out of nowhere, as Pike’s guitar work take on a more melodic, death metal tone (for example, the melodic break midway through “The Face of Oblivion”). A simple combination, but deadly when pulled off as well as it is here.
On first listen, Blessed Black Wings’ nine sprawling tracks threaten to become monotonous, but the more the songs settle in, the more the album’s best tracks leap out. “Devilution” is a perfect example of that Motorhead influence, as it speeds along at a blinding pace, one of the best exercises in old-school metal performed by a young band in ages. More faithful to the classic stoner sound, “Anointing of Seer” is loaded with bongwater-rippling, string-bending riffs and a more lumbering pace, while the superb “Blessed Black Wings” goes headlong into that South of Heaven-era Slayer direction, Pike’s voice taking on a beastly roar. It’s the fast songs, though, that keep things from getting to redundant, as “Silver Back”, and especially the brilliant “Cometh Down Hessian” prove.
As on nearly every Steve Albini record, the drummer emerges as the star, and on Blessed Black Wings, Kensel owns it completely, starting with the drum fill intro to “Devilution”, which gradually fades in, until his beats grow to awe-inspiring proportions, his toms sounding full and resonant, the snare drum echoing from the sheer power of his strikes. The man does not let up one bit for the entire album; if the drum chores were in the hands of a lesser talent, this album would be nowhere near as good.
If there’s one complaint some will have, it’s that Pike’s vocals are buried too deep in the mix, but again, this is how Albini does things, and in High on Fire’s case, the sound of Pike doing his best to holler over Kensel’s drumming, sounding raspier than he ever has before in the process, seems to fit just fine. On this crucial third album, High on Fire come through it all sounding the best they ever have, as they try to break away from the limiting sounds of sludge metal. Blessed Black Wings is their stab at the big time, and at this rate, they just might get there sooner than later.