Firstly, let me say straight up that I’m a big sucker for an impressive opening track on an album. The albums that have the highest place in my personal metal pantheon tend to be those that kick off with a real statement track. Blackened off Metallica’s …And Justice For All, the title track to Left Hand Path by Entombed, Oblivion off Crack The Skye by Mastodon, Helmet’s In The Meantime and of course Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath off their seminal Black Sabbath album all spring to mind when I think of songs that have set the tone for a great album from the outset.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the first track (and title track) off High On Fire’s newie Snakes for the Divine is an absolute belter. A tapped opening soars out from Matt Pike’s fretboard like the Valkyries out of Valhalla, before the crushing rhythm section kicks in. It’s eight minutes of metal riff heaven.
The rest of the songs are great too, and show a band enjoying harnessing the beastly sound that they’ve created, but still looking to improve their sound and add to their box of tricks.
As well as drawing on their own back catalogue (for example, the skipping thrash beat of Fire, Flood & Plague explores a sound we heard in Fury Whip off their last album), the band also look to other great bands for their inspiration. There’s a real Mastodon moment in Frost Hammer, where an abrupt tempo change leads into a dreamy, melodic segment where drummer Des Kensel takes over on lead vocals while Pike harmonises. And I even detected a tinge of Slayer in Ghost Neck, with an angry, spitting thrash riff and lyrics like “Criminally active, not by choice”, “Skeleton the end unfolds”, and “Mauled and incapacitated” which would do Tom Araya proud.
Their last two albums have been produced by Steve Albini and Jack Endino, and new producer Greg Fidelman had an equally impressive pedigree, with recent credits including Metallica’s Death Magnetic and Slayer’s World Painted Blood. I’ve heard big things about the production on this album. It is good, and as with each subsequent album since The Art Of Self Defense is an incremental improvement on the previous album.
Any metal band prepared to go in without a rhythm guitarist needs a strong bass player that can step up and carry the band when required. Bass player Jeff Matz fills that role perfectly here. The production helps him, but it’s also a result of his ‘bouncy’ playing style, which helps fill out the middle registers when Pike is off playing a solo or something atmospheric.
And as always Des Kensel’s drumming is furious and tribal. He’s one of the best in the business, and ranks alongside drumming behemoths like Lombardo, Igor Cavalera and Brann Dailor.
High on Fire is a band that operate on a much grander scale than all others. Pike’s lyrics contribute to this – Cthulu and his minions, overwhelming armies and ancient rituals are all fine topics for a metal band. But it takes a special band that can create a sound that can do these images justice.
This is a modern metal masterpiece.