High on Fire polishes its metal weaponry

Oakland's (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. The musicians also 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 9-foot-tall steroid abuser. 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."

Pike is busy preparing for the band's first headlining U.S. tour in several years. "The way our management and booking agents are, they want us opening constantly," he says genially. Indeed, the group has been the first act of choice on Megadeth's 2008 Gigantour outing and on the recent Dethklok and Mastodon co-headlining tour, but Pike would like the chance to play for an hour straight for a change.

He'd also like to play fresh material this time out. "I'm two-thirds of the way through learning all of 'em so I can play and sing 'em live," he says of the new songs. "We're still working out the quirks. But by the time March rolls around, I'm pretty confident everybody will have their end of things in order."

 
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