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Fifteen Years Later: High on Fire – Blessed Black Wings

I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of High on Fire when I first heard Blessed Black Wings back in 2005. The obvious influence from groups like Motorhead and Slayer was certainly palatable, but as a teenager with no familiarity with the then-defunct Sleep, I wasn’t sure why it had so many slow songs on it. But even if I had been exposed to High on Fire’s past works, their third album proved to be a significant changeover. It muddied the waters of an already ambiguous sound and developed many of the tropes that the band still upholds fifteen years later.

High on Fire’s first two efforts had more hustle than your average sludge group, mostly thanks to Des Kensel’s bombastic drums, but this album was where they really upped the ante. The drums here mix some faster tempos in with their already busy rhythms, but guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike also rises to the challenge with some faster chugs and giving into gruff fits of vocal savagery. The opening “Devilution” and “Cometh Down Hessian” crash into thrash territory after their atmospheric introductions, but “Silver Back” has no interest in such formalities with its bookending beatdowns and high-speed verses.

The album also has a noticeably anthemic air compared to other releases. Pike was never a great singer in the traditional sense, but the vocal lines on here have a peculiar catchiness to them; the shouted choruses of “Devilution” and the title track greatly appeal to the primal reptile brain while “Brother in the Wind” offers strong verses that might not have worked so well in the hands of a more trained vocalist. Tracks like “To Cross the Bridge” also hint at the more exotic textures that would develop further on future full-lengths.

But the closing “Sons of Thunder” is where the album reaches its most striking point. The atmosphere is evocative of a Viking funeral, triumphant yet melancholic with a pace that feels breezy despite it being one of the album’s slowest songs. The drums show some hefty momentum despite mostly sticking to building toms, and the guitars sustain the tone with hazy bookends and powerful strums. It shows a different side of the band while playing into their greatest strengths, and I feel no hesitation in hailing it as one of my favorite metal instrumentals ever.

There are a couple of High on Fire albums that I consider superior to Blessed Black Wings, but it deserves credit for being the album where the band truly discovered itself. This was where their thrashier tendencies and more exotic aspirations truly took flight, backed by pummeling musicianship and memorable songwriting. The band may have since developed a reputation for releasing soundalike efforts, but this is a strong reminder of why they came to be such a powerful institution in the first place. At the very least, it’s one of the reasons why I honestly prefer them over Matt Pike’s other band…

Highlights:
“Devilution”
“Brother in the Wind”
“Cometh Down Hessian”
“Silver Back”
“Sons of Thunder”

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