As set in their classic heavy metal ways as High on Fire are, nestled somewhere between traditional, doom, stoner, and thrash, they’ve displayed a rather ambitious bent over the past decade, especially when it comes to production. So much so in fact, that all of their studio albums are vastly different, be it the muddy sound of 2000’s The Art of Self Defense, the colossal Surrounded By Thieves, the Steve Albini-enhanced fury of the great Blessed Black Wings, or the surprisingly rich sonic and instrumental palette of 2007’s Death Is This Communion. If frontman Matt Pike, drummer Des Kensel, and bassist Jeff Matz carried on with the sludge of Thieves throughout the last ten years, then sure, the Motörhead comparison they’ve been oddly saddled with might have stuck, but as we’ve come to learn, even though we know exactly what to expect from this great American band, we never know just how they’re going to go about doing it.
For their first full-length in two and a half years, High on Fire has thrown us for a bigger loop than expected. By enlisting mainstream producer Greg Fidelman, whose previous work includes mixing Metallica’s Death Magnetic and producing Slayer’s recent World Painted Blood, Pike and his mates are unabashedly going for a more clearly defined, accessible sound now that they’re on the cusp of attracting a much larger audience than ever before. It’s a situation not unlike Mastodon working with Brendan O’Brien on last year’s Crack the Skye, and similarly, there are those in the metal world who have been up in arms over the resulting sound of the highly touted Snakes For the Divine.
Fidelman has his share of detractors, his sound reminiscent of Rick Rubin and Joe Barresi, ultra-clean and very dry in tone, but as Slayer’s record proved, it can work, the guitars cleaner sounding than ever before, the drums crisp, the vocals right up front in the mix. Still, it is unsettling at first to hear High on Fire, one of the more monolithic-sounding live bands in all of metal sounding so damned intimate and so clearly defined. This time around, it’s all about Pike, his lithe riffs and shredding solos front and center, as are his vocals, which for the first time come close to actually sounding charismatic, not to mention coherent. On the other side, though, is the reduced role of Kensel, who, after delivering some towering beats on the last two records, is now pushed back, his compressed drum sound supporting the songs more than propelling them, which if you’ve grown to love the more primal aspects of High on Fire’s music, will come off as a touch peculiar at first.
However, the one thing that can distract us from such left-field production choices is if the band can hammer out the kind of killer tunes that they’ve been doing since the beginning, and indeed, all seven epic tracks (not counting the 82-second interlude) are quintessential Pike. Whereas Death is This Communion offered a broader, more varied take on the High on Fire sound, Snakes For the Divine‘s attack is far more direct, Pike’s rhythm riffs echoing the tight palm mutes of thrash and at times a New Wave of British Heavy Metal-style flamboyance. And don’t let the nimble little Mastodon-esque arpeggios in the title track’s intro fool you either: this is a very punishing record. At eight and a half minutes, “Snakes For the Divine” is a masterfully crafted metal epic that best encapsulates the entire album: the trio’s songwriting is its most dynamic to date as the song veers from old school, double-kick fueled speed metal, to a pensive downshift, to an absolutely explosive breakdown just past the six-minute mark.
Kensel’s loose approach to his drumming on the mighty “Frost Hammer”, much like Lars Ulrich’s stronger moments on Death Magnetic, is an inspired touch, while the song’s surprisingly melodic mid-song bridge (again, shades of Mastodon) offers a fitting contrast, leading right into Pike’s contagious yowls of , “Frost hammer!” and his subsequent crazed solo run. Try as they might, High on Fire’s slower tracks in the past have not quite been able to equal the lofty presence of such classics as “Dragonaut” or “Aquarian” by Pike’s legendary former band Sleep, but the creeping “Bastard Samurai” is as good a Sabbath-inspired doom track as the band has ever come up with, Pike serving up majestic Iommi-inspired riffs, Kensel pulling off those falling-down-stairs tom fills that Bill Ward used to pull of so well. The rest of the album doesn’t so much settle into cruise control as continue to open up the throttle, contagious speedsters “Ghost Neck” and “Fire Flood and Plague” carrying on at a rampaging pace, the pensive “How Dark We Pray” boasting some of Pike’s most melodic, expressive soloing to date, and “Holy Flames of the Fire Spitter” sounding exactly as advertised.
Unlike the classic metal of 25, 30 years ago where metal bands employed a more direct, narrative style of lyric writing (fantasy, history, and mythology being three tried and true subjects), and despite touching on such subjects as Lovecraft, David Icke, and Babylonian mythology, Pike’s lyrics have always been somewhat vague. From day one his lines have been best enjoyed as pure hesher gobbledygook and nothing more, but one thing’s for certain, he’s a master of the nonsensical metal line, and this album is loaded with them: “Black as the devil, the night of the goat has arrived”…”Son of a bitch your fate I’ll bring!”…”Horns are showing through the halo / Heroin is such a feast.” With his lyrics, his robust riffs, and flamboyant solos, Pike and High on Fire embody everything that is fun about heavy metal, and no matter how unpredictable they can be as far as production goes, we’ll always know that there’s no such thing as a bad High on Fire album, and Snakes For the Divine is no exception.