If you haven’t at least had a listen to one of Oakland power trio High On Fire‘s four previous albums by this point, it’s entirely possible that you may be reading the wrong site. The trio, led by former doom metal legends Sleep guitarist Matt Pike (here handling vocals too) have been launching high-quality salvos of thunderous, roaring, balls-out heavy metal that straddle the lines between thrash, stoner, doom and traditional metal with admirable consistency since 2000′s debut The Art Of Self Defence, and have deservedly picked up heaps of critical plaudits. This time around, the band decided to work with producer Greg Fidelman (who twiddled the knobs on Slayer‘s World Painted Blood and Metallica‘s Death Magnetic), and while the switch from sludgy, scuzz-rock production figureheads Steve Albini and Jack Endino (who produced 2005′s Blessed Black Wings and 2007′s Death Is This Communion respectively) to the ultra-dry, heavily compressed drums and sparkling clarity of Fidelman’s work does initially come as something of a surprise for a band who previously thrived in the murk, Snakes For The Divine proves to be another example of High On Fire producing another collection of burly metallic battle anthems par excellence.
Put it this way – Snakes For The Divine is one manly fucking album. I mean, play this for your girlfriend, and the sheer audial testosterone emitted by the record should be enough to immediately transform her into a Latvian shot-put champion. If Snakes For The Divine were a person, it would be a seven-foot-tall Viking berserker who kicked in your door, cleft your sofa in twain with a mighty battleaxe, abducted your missus and set your house on fire, while you looked on in slack-jawed wonderment at the hurricane of awesomeness that just blew through your home. Pike’s sandpaper-scoured, gnarled roars give voice to lyrics that eschew traditional coherence in favour of conjuring visions of the more epic, hyper-masculine kind. See for instance ‘Bastard Samurai’, a slow-burning monolith of a track that combines elephants-climbing-a-mountain, leaden riffs with cascading tom rolls which build from seething rage to defiant howls of “Son of a bitch will bleed a whiiiiilllle!” in a manner that will raise the neck-hairs of anyone within hearing distance. See also ‘Frost Hammer’, which makes room in its midsection for a chord progression and chiming leads that could almost pass for atmospheric – that is, until such namby-pambyness is abruptly cut off by stabs of power-chords and Pike repeatedly yelling “Frost hammer!” before launching into the kind of fret-scorching solo that demands to be played on a cliff face during a lightning storm. I don’t know what a frost hammer is, but I know I want one.
Where High On Fire have always surpassed their contemporaries is their ability to blend intelligent songwriting and genuine instrumental ability with the sort of elemental, collossally physical heft of truly visceral metal. Pike’s just as at home peeling off the earworm hammer-on-pull-off leads that open title track ‘Snakes For The Divine’ as he is laying down steroid-injected thrash rhythms and groove-laden walls of power chords, and the songs run the gamut from driving, double-kick charged rampages to trudging, doom-laden dirges – sometimes all within the same track. While Fidelman’s clean, clear and precise production may have served to sand off some of the rougher edges of the band’s sound (Des Kensel’s powerhouse drumming, for example, lacks some of the momentous punch it had on previous records), it may help to introduce the band’s pummelling material to a wider audience – and thanks to the group’s undimmed ability to pen adrenaline-pumping metal anthems, that wider audience won’t know what has hit it.