By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
California (and possibly Earth's) heaviest band, High on Fire, is ready for its close-up.
The trio's fifth studio album, Snakes for the Divine, is its first for the E1 label after several years on highly regarded metal imprint Relapse. And, for it, the musicians worked with a real producer for the first time in years.
On Snakes, the band's sound was shaped by Greg Fidelman, who has worked on such high-profile metal discs as Metallica's Death Magnetic and Slayer's World Painted Blood.
"He's actually a producer producer," says guitarist and vocalist Matt Pike, contrasting Fidelman with Steve Albini and Jack Endino, who worked on 2005's Blessed Black Wings and 2007's Death Is This Communion respectively. "Greg's a lot more hands-on."
The result is High on Fire's cleanest, most accessible album to date. Of course, the members keep their trademarks. Pike's vocals are a hoarse roar somewhere between Motörhead's Lemmy and the Melvins' Buzz Osborne with throat polyps. And the rhythm section of bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel thunders like an avalanche.
But each instrument occupies its own space, with room for subtle ornamentation. And Pike's guitar, one of the fiercest and most punishing axes in modern metal, has moments of surprising clarity.
Indeed, from the album's first few moments, it's obvious this is a new stage in High on Fire's evolution—even if the title track begins with a high-pitched, buzzing riff that's naggingly similar to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." Pike laughs and owns up to the borrowing: "Not intentionally, but yeah, I kinda lifted a little bit of that," he says. "I thought it was so cool, and it's such a fun thing to play." For the rest of its eight-minute running time, the song is a vintage High on Fire gallop, riffs landing like body blows from a nine-foot-tall steroid abuser.
The rest of the album is jammed with the band's longest and most punishing songs (five pass the six-minute mark, and two run more than eight minutes). It also offers greater variation from the High on Fire crew. "How Dark We Pray" and "Bastard Samurai" are slower than anything the band has recorded since its 2000 debut, The Art of Self-Defense.
"Every now and then it's good to slow down some," Pike acknowledges. "Jeff and I had a really wide span of tempos."
With the new album set for a wider consumption, the band's duly prepared itself for the next step. It's been primed for as much for the past few years: High on Fire was the first act of choice on Megadeth's 2008 Gigantour outing, as well as on the recent Dethklok and Mastodon co-headlining tour. This current tour, finally, sees the band in the headlining role.
"We're still working out the quirks," Pike says. "But I'm pretty confident."