Review Summary: There is absolutely no chance of Sleep while listening to this monolithic slab of molten metal.
“Lest we forget - the sheer magnitude of the album opener.” This maxim (part borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Remembrance” on the perils of hubris and then bastardised for my own benefit!) should be the fundamental foundation on which all records are built.
The first song on any album, regardless of genre, should be the song with the most immediate impact. It ought to set the tone for what is to follow and give the listener the overall idea of what the artist is trying to convey. Once conceived with razor sharp conviction, its impact can be astronomical. Who can forget the first time they heard the intro riff from “Blood and Thunder” bolt from the stables or the first time the bells toll on “Black Sabbath”? For any dedicated music fan, these moments are of biblical proportions.
Nobody understands this more than talismanic Matt Pike, a journey-man and lifer like no other. Having spent days past concocting odes to the bong with lysergic doomsters Sleep, to harnessing the primal power of the riff in High On Fire - Matt Pike gets the absolute unbridled importance of a prime album opener.
Just examine every album that this man has painstakingly crafted to witness this maxim in full flight; “Dragonaut” from “Sleep’s Holy Mountain”, “Devilution” off High On Fire’s “Blessed Black Wings”, “Fury Whip” off “Death Is This Communion” and most recently “Snakes For The Divine” from the album of the same name.
Each song bears similar traits, in that; they are powerful, immediate and encompass the overall sound to be discovered throughout their respective albums. Simply put - they form a musical mission statement and concisely portray Matt Pike’s steely-eyed intent.
Returning to the title track from “Snakes For The Divine” - this may just be the power-trio’s most realised conception of the perfect album opener. Not only that; it is a marathon of classic metal-isms. Starting with a finger-tapped clarion call, fortified by the molasses thick bass lines of Jeff Matz and impelled by Des Kensel’s drums (which constitute the touch paper that ignites the riffs), the song lurches forward in a syncopated gallop. The solos on this track and in fact the entire album are not overtly flashy but played with feel and enough technicality to stand out, as it surges straight into a section which echoes Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” in its sandblasted execution. It’s an eerie calm before segueing into the mother of all breakdowns (arguably one of HOF’s heaviest moments recorded to tape).
One thing that contrasts HOF’s latest LP with past releases is the preferred mixing approach of producer/engineer Greg Fidelman (Slayer/Metallica), who tends to push vocals to the forefront at the expense of the instruments. This may be something that will anger curmudgeonly HOF fans, who have a point; in that - the production makes the band sound less sludgy and cavernous. The drums are not as vocal in the mix as they have been previously. Nonetheless, Des Kensel’s fills still cascade over the torrent of riffs, sounding like Bill Ward and Dave Lombardo being kicked down a flight of stairs with their kits in toe!
Since the band’s inception in 1998, comparisons to Slayer and Motörhead have been rife and have never been disputed by the band as main influences. Nowadays, such comparisons are borderline irrelevant as HOF have carved their own sound into the face of metal. Their trademark barbarian mauling is quite evident in the one-two knock out punch of “Frost Hammer” and “Bastard Samurai”. HOF are devastating whether playing at a methodical pace or at an all out assault as seen on “Fire, Flood & Plague” and the epic “How Dark We Pray”. The latter comes across like “Master of Puppets” -era Metallica, complete with a jaw-dropping Kirk Hammett-style solo. On closer - “Holy Flames of the Fire Spitter” and more specifically, the riff that carries the chant of “Fire Spitter!!”. High On Fire vanquishes all.
Over the course of forty-five minutes, High On Fire have created an amalgamation of fantastical lyrical ideas, underpinned by brute force musicianship with “Snakes For The Divine” providing another lesson in escapism to acolytes old and new.